The Vegas Golden Knights made the rumblings official Sunday morning: Nikita Gusev is joining the team effective immediately.
The franchise has signed the Russian star forward to a one-year, entry-level contract. Gusev, who’s eligible to play in the postseason, is expected to address the media Monday after practicing with the team at City National Arena.
Even if Gusev does not play, getting him into the system was important. He will burn the entry-level contract regardless of if he plays and will become a restricted free agent this summer. If he signed after the season, the Golden Knights could sign him at a cheaper rate on an entry-level deal, but risk losing him as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020.
This way it is easier to get an extension done without the risk of him having a tremendous rookie year and pricing himself out of the Golden Knights' budget.
"You don't know what transpires in playoffs and it gives us some real good depth. You've never had a problem having too many good players around," general manager George McPhee said. "We have a pretty good idea of what this player is and what we think he can do."
The role Gusev will fill remains unclear. He has yet to skate with a team that has now played 91 games including the preseason and postseason.
If he dressed for postseason action, as a left wing he could presumably slide in alongside Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch on the third line, or next to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan Reaves on the fourth.
“I like our team, I’ve liked our team all year but if we think we need to put him in the lineup, we’ll see where it goes,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “I know he’s a very high-end player. He’s a good hockey player and we’ll see what he does in practice.”
Gallant ruled out Gusev playing tonight, but he could play as soon as Game 4 on Tuesday.
“The organization obviously has a plan and they think it’s a player that can help us down the stretch,” Bellemare said. “It’s going to bring a lot of depth to our team and that’s what you want in the playoffs. It’s good, healthy competition and that’s what you want to keep everyone on their toes.
The 26-year-old Gusev led the Kontinental Hockey League, generally considered the second-best league in the world, in scoring with 82 points in 62 games this season. That’s the second-most points in a single season in KHL history. This season’s second-place scorer had 69 points.
The Golden Knights acquired Gusev’s rights from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the expansion draft in exchange for selecting Jason Garrison. Tampa Bay originally drafted Gusev in the seventh round, 202nd overall, in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
He has yet to play stateside in his career.
Gusev won an Olympic gold medal with the Olympic Athletes from Russia at the Pyeongchang games in 2018. The year before, he helped Russia to a bronze medal at the World Championships as well as SKA Saint Petersburg to the KHL’s Gagarin Cup as league champions.