Even with one of the best top-to-bottom rosters in the league, and very few bad contracts on the books, the NHL’s salary cap can sneak up on you pretty fast.
The Vegas Golden Knights are currently about $2.6 million over the cap, albeit before putting David Clarkson on the LTIR and re-signing Malcolm Subban, who just filed for arbitration. But they also only have five NHL defenders right now (though it’s rumored Deryk Engelland will sign a cheap extension, as needed). And because your team has to be cap-compliant on Day 1, nothing short of trading Clarkson with the roster as it stands right now is going to get things done.
Of course, that doesn’t include the possibility of another trade, and it seems the player most likely to get shipped out in the meantime is the team’s other unsigned restricted free agent: KHLer Nikita Gusev, who’s intent on coming to North America this season.
Vegas is reportedly trying to get Gusev to sign for just $2 million AAV over the next two seasons, whereas the player wants double the money for the same term. As such, George McPhee is considering a trade to make his roster work, meaning Gusev’s first real NHL contract would be someone else’s responsibility.
To call such a trade a mistake would be a colossal understatement.
For one thing, The Athletic is reporting that Gusev’s market (for now) is something like a second-round pick or a combination of later pick and middling prospect. This for a player who had 17-65-82 in just 62 games in the KHL last season, as well as 4-12-16 in 10 games for Russia at the World Championships. That KHL number had him first in the league by 13; it’s one of the best seasons in KHL history by points per game (seventh for guys with 50-plus games played) and compares favorably with scoring rates for guys like Alex Radulov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Artemi Panarin, etc.
Gusev is more or less near his prime, having just turned 27 yesterday. On a two-year deal he could be expected to keep up any kind of production you’d want from a guy making the $4 million he reportedly seeks. So why would Vegas even entertain the idea of trading the KHL’s dominant top scorer?
Because the bottom of the roster is weighed down with baffling contracts that would be difficult or impossible to move. If you could move Cody Eakin ($3.85 million AAV for one year on a straight-salary deal), that’s the end of your concern about giving Gusev $4 million AAV. If you jettison Ryan Reaves ($2.775 million AAV, also for one year, also straight salary), you have plenty of room to also sign Subban. Find someone to take Nick Holden ($2.2 million for next year, with $1.8 million in actual cash obligations), and what are we even talking about?
It might still require a bit of maneuvering to make everything work with Clarkson’s contract, and these things are certainly not easy to pull off when everyone knows you’re cap-strapped, but the decision between finding a way to offload those two guys and offloading a potentially elite offensive player shouldn’t be a difficult one.
Cap headaches are a problem for most good teams and Vegas, heading into just Year 3 of its existence, is no exception. A lot of people assumed they’d look to move a winger this summer to free up cap space, and that hasn’t happened; Colin Miller was moved to Buffalo instead. These are rich-guy problems for McPhee, but if you can add Gusev to a top-six already carrying Mark Stone, Jon Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Bill Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, and Paul Stastny, you’re instantly a terror to all who face you. But even if you take out one of those forwards — all of whom make more than the $4 million Gusev wants — you’re in great shape, especially because you just signed Alex Tuch for seven years at $4.75 million AAV as well.
Vegas has, of course, screwed things up with high-end KHL imports in the past. They gave Vadim Shipachyov all of three games to play in the NHL before they decided they were done with him and he went back to the KHL. That was coming off a season in Russia during which he’d gone 26-50-76 in 50 games. Upon his return he went 9-16-25 in 22, and this past year he was 20-48-68. Shipachyov was 30 when he first came to North America, so maybe it was easier to cut bait. And perhaps McPhee is also cautious of ultra-talented Russians he perceives as potential problems because of the whole Alex Semin situation in Washington.
Nonetheless, to trade Gusev for anything, let alone an unpalatable future or futures, would be to invite a big issue, one in which a guy you gave away for nothing turns out to be a star. It’s hard not to think back to something McPhee said when there were a million rumors swirling that the Caps would trade Semin in 2011: “We like Semin because he can score goals. Those guys aren’t easy to find.”
You know what guys are easy to find? Barely replacement-level ones like Eakin and Reaves. You can literally just call replacement-level guys up from the AHL and they cost next to nothing. Let alone a combined $6.625 million, and are only under your control for one more season.
Let’s put it this way: There’s a really good chance Gusev puts up better numbers (scoring, underlying, WAR, you name it) than Reaves and Eakin combined next season. Even if he signs for his ask, not even a compromise between that and what Vegas wants to give him, he’ll do it for 40 percent fewer dollars.
If the choice is between a roster with Eakin, Reaves, and Holden, or a roster with Gusev, Cody Glass, and Jimmy Schuldt, there’s no choice at all.
So while making room under the cap might be easier said than done, Gusev is exactly the kind of talent you make the room for every time you get the chance. He could score 60 points easily if he doesn’t have to tow around some bottom-six anchors. You certainly don’t trade that away unless someone blows your doors off with a trade offer.
The alternative is you trade him for next to nothing and, probably, watch him make someone else’s top line look really good.
And hey, if it doesn’t work out, you can always bully him into going back to Russia.
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