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Maple Leafs sign Nikita Gusev to a PTO

Is this just Alex Galchenyuk with a Russian accent?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Once upon a time, Nikita Gusev was the easy answer to: Who is the best player not in the NHL? The former Tampa draft pick, 202nd overall in 2012, eventually moved from CSKA, where he played when he was drafted, down through a lower-ranked KHL team, until he blossomed with SKA St. Petersburg.

He has an Olympic gold medal, some negligible IIHF hardware, and one Gagarin Cup. Once he had that cup, he finally decided to try the NHL and has been over here for two seasons. It hasn’t gone smoothly.

He’s 29 now, and you’ll be surprised to hear he’s 5’11” and a winger. He shoots right, but has played left side. You might be asking yourself if he’s just Ilya Mikheyev or Alex Galchenyuk all over again, and that’s a fair question. The answer is pretty much yes, on his good days.

In his last KHL season in 2018-2019 with SKA, Gusev had 82 points in 62 games. That same year, Mikheyev has 45 points in 62 games for Avangard. Now, don’t get excited, SKA scores goals like breathing, and in those days they were supercharged under the old supersoft salary cap system. Gusev played with Alexander Barabanov, a fellow by the name of Pavel Dutsyuk, Nikolai Prokhorkin, Sergei Plotnikov, Nail Yakupov, and Patrik Hersley, who was one of the best KHL defenders at that time. They had two goals before the anthem was done.

Tampa traded Gusev’s rights to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017, but they have shown no ability at all to get along with Russian players. They didn’t succeed in making a deal with Gusev, so in 2019, they traded his rights to New Jersey for some picks.

Gusev played one and a part years for the Devils, and had his contract mutually terminated before signing with Florida around the deadline last spring. He did better in Florida, but didn’t exactly wow anyone, and did not play in the playoffs.

This is his first year shooting in New Jersey, his good year, where he got some points on a team lacking skill. Does this remind you of anything?

Mikheyev is actually better:

Mikheyev, who doesn’t seem to have any finishing skill, shoots from all over the place, peppering the net with shots from low percentage areas like he thinks Mikko Koskinen is in goal every night. Koskinen had a .937 save % and won the Gagarin Cup with Gusev in 2017.

The reality is, scoring goals in the KHL is easier than in the NHL, and this is how a good player shoots there. It rarely translates well, but a truly gifted player like Nikita Kucherov is truly gifted in the NHL. A guy who shoots from wherever he happens to be, usually isn’t. Which is exactly why Gusev has struggled in the NHL. In very limited minutes in Florida, he seemed to understand he needed to be able to see the goalie before he let the puck go, and he was much better there.

Is he any good defensively? Good god, no. That’s not something you need to do when you play for SKA. You stay in the offensive zone, someone else defends, possibly just a goalie like Koskinen. But it is very much beneath you to care.

So what are the Leafs doing? They’re looking to see if his zippy little winger act in the offensive zone will work for them. Maybe he has enough finishing skill that he’s worth parachuting into the zone. And if the Maple Leafs can make a motivated Alex Galchenyuk look good, maybe the former best player not in the NHL can look like he belongs there too.

Why, though, when they have a surplus of forwards? That’s even more obvious: they have a dearth of wingers who can score, who think of the offensive zone like it’s their living room, and who really understand that you have to shoot the puck to win the game.

At the very least, I get to see one of my favourite KHL players do that winger act in preseason.