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Nikita Gusev worth a look, if only the cap space was there

Some NHL team is going to look pretty good when they sign this guy

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Vegas Golden Knights v San Jose Sharks - Game Seven Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

If you haven’t been following the situation with now Vegas Golden Knight restricted free agent Nikita Gusev here it is in a nutshell:

Drafted by Tampa in 2012 after playing well at World Juniors, has played in the KHL ever since. 4x KHL all-star. Rights traded (with a 2nd and 4th round pick) to Vegas in the expansion draft (note: EVERYONE was really, really dumb in the expansion draft). Lead KHL in assists in 2017-18. Led KHL in assist and points in KHL last year. Scored 12 points in six games in the (farce) 2018 Olympics, winning gold. He signed and practiced with Vegas but was scratched for their short playoff run.

The Athletic’s Jesse Granger has reported Vegas is in a cap crunch, Gusev’s camp is looking for $4 million annually, the Golden Knights can only go $2 million. As such, they’re receiving and entertaining trade offers believed to be in the second round pick + low-end prospect range.

Simply put, this would be a steal to get a prime age player like Gusev who will plug into the top-six next season.

Gusev (probably) isn’t the next Artemi Panarin, but he has real potential to give Evgenii Dadanov type production. (Also, I don’t think a lot of fans really respect or realize the types of numbers Dadanov puts up down in Florida. Look at it; 65 and 70 points in the last two seasons!)

Anyways, point being Gusev is almost certainly not a bust like a Sergei Plotnikov-type. Gusev’s production and skill is enough to project with some confidence

Also from Granger:

Gusev is one of the most productive players in KHL history, scoring more points per game over his career than recent NHL breakout players Artemi Panarin and Dadonov. It’s not just this last MVP season either. Gusev has averaged 0.873 points per game over 458 KHL games, which keeps him in very good company career-wise.

Those seven players managed to translate on average 87.8 percent of their KHL scoring to the NHL, meaning they’ve scored 12.2 percent less than they did in the KHL, but that’s still an impressive rate. Looking at a much broader range of KHL-to-NHL players, players usually scored roughly 80 percent of the points they did in the KHL.

If Gusev saw a similar drop in the NHL he would be at 0.698 points per game, which translates to roughly 57 points (21 goals-36 assists) in an 82 game season

From the Penguins’ perspective, if you’re looking to re-engage Evgeni Malkin and give him a boost into the latter half of his career - what better way than to add a countryman with the skill to do stuff like this?

Alas, the Penguins aren’t in a position to swoop in and weaponize salary cap space. They basically have none themselves.

Opportunities like potentially acquiring a 55+ point player like Gusev on a lark are why many have bemoaned some of the salary decisions Pittsburgh has made in the last 12 months. $3.25 million for Jack Johnson? Too much for a player that doesn’t help and in fact actively hurts.

Acquiring a $4.0 million salary of Erik Gudbranson? At least three times too much for a very limited and very sheltered low-minute third pair defenseman.

Signing a fourth line player like Brandon Tanev for $3.5 million? (AND giving him a ten team partial no trade clause)? What kind of sick joke is this?

Those types of move all add up and pile up. (Sadly, you might add to it the good soldier decisions to buy out a couple of Bryan Rust’s UFA years at a premium and re-signing Patric Hornqvist as well.)

Targeting and spending more than necessary can quickly become problematic and constraining. Stockpile enough JJ’s and Tanev’s, especially at the cost of perhaps cheaper alternatives and a team takes themselves out of competing for opportunities like Gusev. It’s no secret that a trend has developed that many trades this offseason have resulted from one team trading a fairly good-to-good player away mainly for the purposes of clearing cap space (P.K. Subban, Andre Burakovsky, Colin Miller, Erik Haula).

Having cap space is a weapon. Not having it is a liability. Unfortunately in their recent quest to achieve three different goals, the Pens may have forgotten another important one. To actually make sure the changes they sought after actually improved the talent-level of their team.

One bonus is that Pittsburgh has been very creative. They maneuvered a unique three-team trade to nab Derick Brassard when they wanted to go and make it happen. They’ve created cap space by selling on once-useful major parts of Stanley Cup winning teams like Conor Sheary, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Olli Maatta lately. But, then they’ve turned around and burdened their futures with players of limited upside coming at considerable future term.

This all seems ominous right now with Rutherford admitting another transaction is likely which anyone can see since they don’t have enough space now to bring back their three young restricted free agents in Marcus Pettersson, Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese for next season. Will they send another useful piece like Bryan Rust away? And is that enough to package a bad player/contract like Johnson with him?

The Pens are left with more questions then answers right now, and not in the strongest position to make sure their next move is a positive one. But, magic can always be worked if they find the right team and situation to go towards.

It may be the dead of summer right now for the NHL, but the anticipation of that finishing touch for next season’s roster (and beyond) looms large right now for the Pens.