Nikita Gusev’s career has been a bit of an enigma. After signing a one-year entry-level deal last April in order to practise with the Vegas Golden Knights, Gusev was moved to the New Jersey Devils and immediately signed a two-year deal with an AAV of $4.5 million. That’s easily the biggest contract for a 27-year-old with no NHL games played, but when you spend half a decade outplaying teammates like Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk with KHL powerhouse SKA Saint Petersburg, you’re more than just an ordinary prospect.
Considered to be one of the greatest players in KHL history, Gusev made his long-awaited debut back in October, scoring a goal in a bottom-six role against Winnipeg. But it started to get wonky from there: though he sat in a three-way tie for first with three goals in nine games, the Devils weren’t impressed with Gusev and his 34.4 percent Corsi rating. It’s always tough for a Russian player to adjust to life in the NHL after years of excellence. It’s a different game, and while Gusev proved he could dominate back home (and internationally, too), he looked completely lost in New Jersey during the fall.
So, in a year when nothing has gone right for the Devils, one of the team’s big off-season investments was failing to provide results right off the bat. Gusev isn’t the type of player that can drive a line to glory – he’ll capitalize on every chance you give him and can set up some highlight-reel plays, but he can’t do it alone. The Gusev we’ve seen as of late has looked more effective than the one that forced former coach John Hynes to staple him to the press box. But since Alain Nasreddine took over in early December, it seems like the interim bench boss isn’t afraid to give Gusev free reign: in the past 10 games, Gusev sits in a three-way tie with Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri for the team scoring lead with 10 points, but Gusev’s doing so at 15:24 minutes a night – two minutes fewer than Palmieri and four behind Hischier.
Gusev has been reliable for someone playing under 11 minutes of 5-on-5 action a night. Gusev’s 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage sits at 48.82 – still not great, but fourth among Devils forwards. Among players with at least 100 minutes of 5-on-5 play over the past 10 games, Gusev’s 2.38 first assists-per-60 is second at 2.38. His 3.33 total points-per-60 is 25th in the league in that span, good for first on the Devils. Overall, Gusev leads the NHL in first assists-per-60 with 1.57 for the entire season (min. 300 minutes), and he’s 16th among total points-per-60 leaders with 2.71.
Compare that to October when he was averaging 9:38 a night with no first assists, and there’s an obvious improvement to his results. His current numbers skewed a bit because he isn’t averaging much ice time, but at least it suggests he should be playing more – and, compared to the Hynes era, he is. If you want a bigger 5-on-5 sample size dating back to Nov. 1, his Corsi-for percentage is 48.82 (fourth), Fenwick-for is 46.26 (first) and shots-for of 34.41 (first) makes him a statistical darling compared to the rest of the Devils, who currently sit second-last in the Eastern Conference and in prime position for another top draft pick. Gusev can still learn to be more aggressive on the puck and still has to adjust to the quick action of small-ice NHL play, but his recent performance has been desirable.
The odds were stacked against Nasreddine from the get-go: Taylor Hall is gone, the stars weren’t producing, and the franchise wouldn’t even give Nasreddine full coach status – and then there’s the fact the Devils sit near the bottom of the league standings. But he’s giving Gusev a fair shot in a way Hynes never did. Gusev is not a fourth-line forward, he’s an offensive weapon. His possession numbers were brutal at the start, but he never had favorable matchups because he was a star forward trying to lead a group of grinders. Now that he’s playing key minutes with Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac, Gusev is back to showing why there was so much interest in his North American arrival. The future of the team’s offense is built around Hischier and Jack Hughes, but Gusev is the type of support the Devils’ need, especially in the post-Hall era. If Nasreddine deserves any credit for his work over the past month, it’s for getting the most out of one of the team’s best assets.
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