The Maple Leafs have invited Nikita Gusev to training camp on a Professional Tryout Agreement, CapFriendly is reporting.
It was a rollercoaster 2020-21 for Gusev in which he went through Covid protocol in February, spent a few weeks on the sidelines, and needed to get his conditioning back up to par before returning to the lineup with a bang (three points in his first three games). At the time of his return from Covid, Gusev had played just nine games in 11 months due to the shutdown of the 2020-21 season (the Devils were out of the playoff tournament) and a delayed start to 2021-22.
Gusev then lost his spot in new Devils coach Lindy Ruff’s lineup through the month of March, culminating in 10 healthy scratches and an unconditional waiver assignment for the purposes of terminating his $4.5 million contract. Gusev finished up the season in Florida, where he appeared in 11 regular season games — recording five points — and did not feature in the playoffs while playing a shade over 15 minutes per game in his appearances.
Lindy Ruff speaks on Nikita Gusev:
“Disappointed it didn’t work. At the end, just young players took over and created great competition.”#NJDevils | @UnibetUS pic.twitter.com/hKxCuAWcdC
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) April 9, 2021
The sharp downturn came after a 2020-21 in which he was a standout in his debut NHL season at age 27. 44 points in 66 games ranked him second in scoring on the Devils behind Kyle Palmieri in both overall points and power-play points (15), and the production was accompanied by the best five-on-five possession numbers on the team while playing primarily next to centerman Travis Zajac.
Now 29, Gusev is looking to salvage an NHL career through camp and preseason in Toronto, with a return to the KHL — where he was a four-time All-Star and led the league in scoring in 2018-19 — likely in the cards for him next if it doesn’t work out this Fall. With no risk involved, the Leafs are adding some competition on the wings — Gusev is a right shot but enjoys creating off of the left side — via their second PTO of the summer after inviting Josh Ho-Sang to camp several weeks ago.
If he can rediscover his form and confidence coming off of a strange year where he didn’t play much hockey, Covid then sidelined him, and he struggled to gain the trust of a new coach under a new system, Gusev’s skilled playmaking abilities off of the wing could give the Leafs another option next to two highly-capable shooting centers in Auston Matthews and John Tavares. With Zach Hyman now departed, the likes of Michael Bunting and Ondrej Kase are both signed and slotted in ahead of him for wing spots entering camp, but more competition in the form of a no-risk bet on offensive upside is never a bad idea, especially with all three of these players carrying different types of question marks surrounding them (health for Kase, lack of experience for Bunting).
Nick Ritchie gives the Leafs a more dependable option on the wing with a higher “floor,” so to speak, but the approach of creating added competition in behind Bunting and Kase if they fail to grab their opportunities at camp with both hands is difficult to argue with (Nick Robertson is also in this mix).