Nikita Gusev is a forward, looking to make the jump from the KHL (Russia) to the NHL, ever heard of him? If you live in Las Vegas or browse the Twitter, you surely know that name well. From the moment he bought out his KHL contract and reported to the Golden Knights, Vegas has gone gaga for Gusev. Much to the Golden Knight’s fans’ dismay, it seems that Gusev may never actually appear in a game for the team, due to salary cap constraints.
Will we ever see Gusev in the grey and gold? (USA Today Sports)
Unless George McPhee finds a way to unload more salary (see trades of Erik Haula, Colin Miller), there is simply no cap space left for Gusev at a number he believes he is worth. Recently reports have surfaced that the team and Gusev are approximately $2 million apart on his average-annual-value (AAV). The team is pushing for $2 million and the Goose wants $4 million. Unlike other similar scenarios, the Golden Knights are unlikely to get a hometown discount on this one.
Looking into the cap dump strategy, there are two players who can be moved, on their own, freeing up enough space to give Gusev the $4 million AAV he is seeking. Cody Eakin is the main name we have seen throughout the offseason, floated as trade bait, even before the Haula deal with the Carolina Hurricanes….bunch of jerks….
Cody Eakin has been rumored to be trade bait (USA Today Sports)
I digress. In addition to Eakin, there is one particularly interesting name that could be moved in a single-player swap, that would clear enough space to sign the Russian standout. That man is none other than the last remaining 2018-19 captain currently on the Golden Knights’ roster, Reilly Smith. Smith makes $5 million per season and is signed through the 2021-22 season, per Cap Friendly. Not only would Smith’s $5 million leave enough room for a Gusev signing, it gives the Golden Knights a little more wiggle room, with that extra million. Welcome to what I like to call “Speculation Season”.
Reilly Smith is an interesting trade option (USA Today Sports)
After the Free Agent Frenzy on July 1, NHL news considerably slows down leading into training camp. Slow times, wandering minds, hypothetical scenarios. That’s my world. Come inside, stay a while, we have snacks.
Flanking William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault on the Golden Knights’ top line, Smith plays a huge role in the grand scheme of things and that’s before factoring in his penalty killing (with Karlsson). On that top line, Marchessault is the sniper, the natural goal scorer. Karlsson is the defensive stalwart and the guy who can do a little of everything, shoot and pass. Smith is the workhorse, the mucker, the worker, the glue.
Marchessault has thrived on a line with Smith (right) and Karlsson (USA Today Sports)
Envisioning those two players without Smith on the right side is easy to do, simply because he missed time last season due to an undisclosed injury. That undisclosed injury seemed to hit every fallen Golden Knights player….but I digress again, darn it!
In Smith’s absence, Brandon Pirri slid into his vacated spot, to mixed results for a handful of games in January. Earlier on in the season, Gerard Gallant decided to experiment, sliding Smith down to the third line, in a swap with Alex Tuch, with similarly mixed results. With Pirri on the wing, the top line pushed play (Corsi) much better than with Tuch, despite Pirri being more of a shooter than a forechecker like Smith or Tuch.
Although the line rolled well and Pirri returned, bizarrely signing a new two-year deal with the Golden Knights, at an AAV under a million per season, the line is just not the same without Smith doing the little things. He is responsible on both ends, a hard worker, and a quiet leader, both on the ice and in the room. With such a strong second line (Stastny-Pacioretty-Stone), keeping Smith around locks in a rock-solid top-six.
Which brings me back to Tuch, who has the makeup of a future superstar in the NHL. At six-foot-four, 220 pounds, the 23-year-old is an imposing, big body. On top of that, he possesses surprisingly good footwork, speed, and puck skills for a big man. With a full season of time with Marchessault and Karlsson, Tuch could really take off, especially with similar production to his first half during the 2018-19 season.
Alex Tuch will be a first-line star, sooner rather than later (USA Today Sports)
Out of the gate, Tuch was the best player on the ice for the Golden Knights. He missed eight games due to injury, but once he got in, he was an animal. Tuch scored a team-leading 40 points in his first 44 games of the season, playing with a revolving door of linemates, due to a slew of “undisclosed” injuries. His second half was lackluster and wasn’t helped by the acquisition of bona fide stud Mark Stone at the trade deadline. Stone’s addition glued Tuch to the third line.
Would it be smart for the Golden Knights to move a guy like Smith, in a vacuum? We all know Eakin and a combination of Reaves or Holden could get the money freed up, but for the sake speculation, here during “Speculation Season”, would you deal Smith to make room for Gusev? Should they do it, if there are no takers for Eakin/Reaves/Holden/Bob/Jim/Sam/Fred?
What Would They Gain?
Signing Gusev brings in another gunner who can create offense much better than many top-nine forwards in the NHL. This past summer, Gusev once again proved how dynamic he could potentially be with another impressive showing at the IIHF World Championships. By the time the tournament ended and Gusev earned his bronze medal, the Russian dynamo found himself in a tie for second in points with Nikita Kucherov (his teammate and the NHL MVP) and the Philadelphia Flyers’ bearded playmaker Jakub Voracek. His four goals and 12 assists in just 10 games were impressive to watch.
Gusev excels in the open ice, is a very good puck carrier, and has above-average to elite vision/playmaking ability. Playing internationally, he has benefited from the bigger playing surface and will need to adjust his game to the North American rink and NHL style of play. There have been many KHL imports over the years and a few have been highly successful. Alexander Radulov, Evgeny Dadonov, and Artemi Panarin are a few examples of players who have been solid to elite NHL performers after time in the KHL.
Currently, Gusev is tenth all-time in regular season scoring in the KHL. Sitting in second is Vadim Shipachev, the former Golden Knight who had a very ugly fallout with the club and defected back to Russia after three games in the NHL and a demotion to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League (AHL).
For what it’s worth. Gusev looks to be a far better fit for the NHL. By all accounts, he is mature beyond his years at 26-years-old. He has a strong desire to show his talent at the highest level and with his skill set, that shouldn’t be an issue. Talent will almost always shine through, provided the player has a good head on their shoulders.
Expect Gusev to be a more-than-adequate third liner in the NHL while leaning on his valuable combination of slick hands, smooth skating, and playmaking vision.
Gusev is a natural left winger, whereas Smith is a right winger, therefore the swap wouldn’t be a direct one for Smith’s potentially vacated slot. As of now, the left wing depth chart for the Golden Knights is as follows:
The spot that makes the most sense for Gusev is 3LW. Pirri would need to either move back to the top line, which isn’t likely, or slide to the opposite wing, moving Tuch back to the first line. Starting out on the third line would give Gusev the chance to get his footing, alongside Eakin who is a very good defensive center with good secondary scoring potential. Sliding Tuch back up to L1 would be a great way to jump start him again and get the most out of the budding superstar. With that look, the Golden Knights would have a scary-good top-nine.
Gusev in the 2019 IIHF World Championships (USA Today Sports)
While Gusev is an exciting option, would this scenario be a perfect swap? Sure, Gusev is a fairly polished and a flashy offensive player, but there are definitely facets of Smith’s game that would be sorely missed.
What They Would Lose
As previously mentioned, Smith is the last remaining captain from the 2018-19 roster. Deryk Engelland is expected to be back in the mix, but for some reason, that deal has yet to come to fruition. McPhee himself said they are in no hurry (because who is really getting into a bidding war for Engelland) to get the deal done, but it seems to be a matter of when and not if.
While Engelland is more of a vocal leader, Smith is that hard-working leader who has the skill to match. He doesn’t have the high-volume fight card, but he plays a similar role to a guy like Wayne Simmonds. He’s a player that will back up his teammates, play in the dirty areas, all while producing points. Smith’s presence on line one massively helps open up ice for Marchessault and Karlsson.
Together with Karlsson, Smith played on the best penalty killing pair for the Golden Knights. It was no surprise to see the puck in the other team’s end for prolonged periods when the pair was on the ice. Both Smith and Karlsson use their speed and skill well to translate into above average PKers. It’s never good to overuse your top-liners in grueling PK minutes, but those two perform so well, Gallant has little choice but to allow it.
Marchessault and Smith both came to Vegas from the Florida Panthers during the 2017 Expansion Draft. Smith was too expensive for the Panthers and Marchessault was left unprotected, due a large raise in the following offseason. Upon their arrival, the two were paired together, with Karlsson in the middle – after a brief Shipachev experiment – and have yet to look back.
Karlsson and Smith have had very good chemistry in Vegas (USA Today Sports)
In their inaugural season, that trio formed one of the most dominant lines in hockey. Check out the trio’s production over their first two seasons in the desert.
Reilly Smith: 141 Games Played, 41 goals, 72 assists, 113 points, +44 rating.
Jonathan Marchessault: 159 Games Played, 52 goals, 82 assists, 134 points, +38 rating.
William Karlsson: 164 Games Played, 67 goals, 67 assists, 134 points, +50 rating.
Letting go of Smith could not only take away solid offensive production from his spot, but it could potentially slow down a more-often-than-not overpowering forward line.
Over the past eight years, Smith has played for four different NHL clubs, each with a service time of two seasons. His first full season came during 2013-14, his first with the Boston Bruins. Although his best scoring totals have come with the Golden Knights, his previous production doesn’t skew too far from the player he has been over the past two seasons.
2013-14: 82 GP, 20 goals, 30 assists, 51 points, +28 rating
2014-15: 81 GP, 13 goals, 27 assists, 40 points, +7 rating
2015-16: 82 GP, 25 goals, 25 assists, 50 points, +19 rating
2016-17: 80 GP, 15 goals, 22 assists, 37 points, -13 rating
Some could say landing in Vegas presented an opportunity for Smith to rebound from a down season, but a progression back to the mean is more accurate. His production is fairly consistent in comparison to other forwards around the league. With Smith, you know what you’re getting, a solid player who can help out on offense. On most teams, he would be a second-liner, but his chemistry with Karlsson and Marchessault has made him a mainstay on that top line.
What’s the Verdict?
Believe it or not, I would not be rushing to make this move, even if it meant losing Gusev. Smith plays such an important role on the team, provides stability and support for his skilled linemates, and would be missed in the room. His work in all three aspects of the game (5v5, Power Play, and Penalty Kill) make him a rare tool, not all teams have the luxury of deploying.
Gusev’s RFA rights could be dealt to a team, preferably in the Eastern Conference, for a decent haul. Multiple teams have called McPhee inquiring about the talented Russian import and it may be best for the GM to cut his losses and capitalize on Gusev via trade. Speculation is in the air as fans, media, and team employees wait to see what will happen with the crafty winger. Regardless of what you may see, think, or hear don’t sleep on McPhee surprising us all with a move and/or a signing nobody saw coming.
Be sure to follow me on Twitter for Golden Knights news, analysis, and updates. Don’t be shy, let me know what you think of this (obviously hypothetical and purely speculative) trade option in the comments!