The Toronto Maple Leafs have reportedly signed Russian forward Nikita Gusev to a professional try-out, a move that presents no risk to the organisation.
Gusev was originally selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning as an overager in the seventh round (202nd overall) of the 2012 Draft, but did not play a game in North America until the 2019/20 campaign.
After being drafted, Gusev developed into one of the best performers in the Kontinental Hockey League, winning the Gagarin Cup in 2017 and providing the most assists in the league in back-to-back seasons before signing an entry-level deal with the Vegas Golden Knights in April 2019.
The Moscow native never played for the Golden Knights, and he signed a two-year contract with the New Jersey Devils that off-season, earning him an AAV of $4.5 million.
He put up good numbers in his debut season in the NHL, registering 44 points (13 goals, 31 assists) in 66 regular season games – demonstrating some of the offensive potency he had developed over the years in Russia.
His second season, however, did not go anywhere close to that standard, with just two goals and five total points in 20 games with the Devils before he was placed on unconditional waivers and his contract terminated.
He was picked up on a $1 million deal by the Florida Panthers, where he produced the exact same number of goals and assists in 11 games – missing out on the playoffs in both of his two seasons in the NHL.
After a flurry of free agency transactions, Gusev was one of the odd-men out and has taken a much longer time to find an opportunity to stake a claim on an NHL roster spot – reportedly landing a PTO with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This move poses virtually no risk for the Leafs and general manager Kyle Dubas, who is looking at building a team that can finally get over the playoffs first round hump that has been suffered through over the past half-decade.
While the majority of players on the Leafs have returned, the likes of Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting and David Kampf have arrived and will make up a team that looks somewhat altered to previous iterations.
The Leafs currently have Josh Ho-Sang also on a PTO, looking at how they can get the former first round pick to reach his potential after a stifling few years with the New York Islanders, and Gusev could be in line to receive the same treatment.
All of this comes with no financial commitment from the team, meaning they are not tying themselves to a player that has yet to prove he can return to form, while also allowing the team a chance to look at what he could potentially offer them.
Gusev was a top offensive player in Russia and may suit head coach Sheldon Keefe’s system well, while having little responsibility on the defensive end.
If he does not impress the Leafs, he will be let go without any concern, but there is the potential that Gusev can build himself back up in a way that Alex Galchenyuk was beginning to last season after being acquired in a trade.
Whether this move works out in the Leafs’ favour or not, the team lose little by giving it a try and seeing what the 29-year-old Russian winger still has left in the tank.