What would you expect from a hockey player who was once nicknamed ‘Picasso’? A trailblazing streak of creativity? Most assuredly so. A boundless supply of humility? Most definitely not. Whatever the case may be, it’s a pretty safe bet that Nikita Gusev earned the moniker with his brazen skill and innovative flair. The point-producing machine for SKA St. Petersburg never toots his own horn and shrugs off comparisons as if they were hapless Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod defensemen.
The 26-year-old KHL star won’t even let himself be proud of bringing the Motherland its long-awaited Olympic glory, and Gusev was in on all four Russian goals in the 2018 gold-medal final against Germany – including his last-minute, game-tying tally that forced overtime. When asked about the Winter Games, Gusev nonchalantly deflects by saying the Olympics are a big part of any player’s life and leaves it at that. Sidney Crosby himself couldn’t construct a response more unassuming. Picasso would not have approved.
Gusev, the KHL’s leading scorer in the early stages of the season, is more often compared nowadays not to Spanish painters but to fellow Russian hockey artist Artemi Panarin. This makes a lot of sense, considering SKA had originally obtained Gusev from Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk in order to replace the NHL-bound Panarin. In true SKA fashion, the KHL’s “oligarch club” simply bought Gusev from the eternally broke Ugra for cash early in the 2015-16 season, a move that summarily ended the Siberian team’s hopes of making the playoffs.
Despite his vehement denials and general dislike for this line of questioning, there is substance to the Panarin comparison, especially when considering Gusev’s knack for creative entrances into the offensive zone, utilizing his speed and otherworldly stickhandling talents to fly through the neutral zone, leaving a trail of disoriented opponents in his wake.
Vegas GM George McPhee, who met Gusev after the Golden Knights acquired his NHL rights in a trade with Tampa Bay during the expansion draft, might be more inclined to see in him some of the qualities of Evgeny Kuznetsov, whom McPhee drafted in 2010 when he was GM in Washington. Gusev certainly has the hands, the shrewdness, the improvisational talent and the ability to release lethal shots from seemingly inopportune angles that have become the hallmarks of Kuznetsov’s success. Gusev’s special-teams prowess is also formidable. He serves as SKA’s power-play quarterback, and that’s while being on the ice with someone named Pavel Datsyuk.
But whether you want to call him Kuznetsovian or Panarinesque, Gusev isn’t about to join the hype train. Whatever his on-ice qualities that may remind you of those players, he doesn’t seem to posses their camera-friendly charisma. Gusev comes off as painfully shy when discussing his playing style and interrupts with a “next question, please” whenever the NHL is so much as mentioned. His response, or lack thereof, is understandable, considering how important it is for SKA’s image as the flagship of Russian hockey to keep as many young stars as possible.
Next summer, McPhee may find out that his famous skills in courting talented Russians face a severe headwind in St. Petersburg, where a pile of gas-industry money may land in the star prospect’s lap. “In some ways, playing on the small ice is a little easier,” said Gusev, allowing himself to speculate in generalities only. “There are more opportunities for shots and offensive chances. On the other hand, hockey is more physical this way, so there are difficulties, too.”
Unlike the previous generation of Russians, players such as Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who grew up in the 1990s watching tape-delayed games from across the Atlantic, playing EA Sports NHL and dreaming of a chance to hold the Stanley Cup, Gusev is a product of 21st-century Russia, a much more introverted society. He watched the NHL only intermittently, never developed a taste for hockey video games and definitely didn’t have a favorite NHL team. When asked about his favorite player growing up, Gusev seems genuinely baffled. The topic of current players doesn’t excite him either. When asked which NHL forward he may feel kinship to, Gusev shrugs and says he already has a brother and doesn’t need any additional kin.
Be that as it may, his KHL deal expires at the end of this season, so Vegas can’t be far from his mind. There’s no doubt SKA wants to keep him and has the means to pay him far in excess of an NHL entry-level deal. Gusev, however, can’t fail to see that he has little left to prove back home, whether or not he will ever say so himself.