With Lee the best remaining unrestricted free agent forward available when he was signed late Monday afternoon, it’s pretty clear the Islanders need to do this via the trade market rather than free agency.
One option to pursue: KHL star and Vegas Golden Knights property Nikita Gusev.
According to reports in the Las Vegas Review Journal and the Athletic, the Knights are weighing whether to trade the rights to Gusev if they can’t fit the RFA under the cap. Jesse Grainger at the Athletic reports the cap-stressed Knights are as much as $2 million per year apart in contract negotiations, a gap that may force Vegas to trade him rather than find a spot in their lineup.
As Grainger wrote, the KHL MVP “is arguably the best player in the world currently outside of the NHL. He absolutely torched the KHL last season.” With the Islanders missing out on Artemi Panarin in free agency — yet bringing in Gusev’s national team teammate Varlamov via free agency — Gusev looks like an option they have to consider.
Former Isles executive and Golden Knights head George McPhee says he has heard from teams interested, and expects a decision — whether trade or contract arrangement — sooner than later. It’s also possible McPhee was publicly musing about the prospect of the trade with media in order to signal to Gusev’s camp to ease off demands if they truly want to be in Vegas.
Gusev, an original draft pick of the Lightning, will turn 27 this month and is apparently eager to make his mark in the NHL. Vegas helped secure his release last spring and signed him to an unused ELC specifically so he could be an RFA now, able to earn more than an ELC allows.
As a player, the right shooting wing is comfortable coming in from the left side, though he is undersized and may need a longer adjustment to North American rinks and violence. He’s not a slam dunk, but he has accumulated enough success in the KHL and international level that he’s a good bet.
Barriers to Acquisition
One of the barriers I see is that, if I’m Vegas, I’d much prefer to find a way to dump less talented players rather than send Gusev elsewhere. Granger outlined some of those options:
The other option is to move enough salary to afford Gusev, which can be done without dismantling the dominant top-six forwards we just discussed. Ryan Reaves is set to make $2.775 million, and Nick Holden is due $2.2 million. Neither play a major role for the Golden Knights and would open up approximately what would be needed to pay Gusev his market value. Vegas could also opt to move Eakin, who is in the final year of his $3.85 million contract.
Granted, buying cap space is a little tougher this summer, and Vegas has already paid a ransom to clear some of their cap by trading Colin Miller and Erik Haula. But still: If it’s between trading Gusev for futures or paying a little to offload Reaves or Holden, I know what I’d prefer.
Another barrier? Because of Vegas’ cap situation, acquiring Gusev would require futures rather than a trade. So dealing roster players from a position of surplus, such as Nick Leddy or Thomas Hickey from the blueline, is not a path to acquiring Gusev.
That means dealing prospects and/or draft picks. The Islanders do have some blueline prospects in the AHL who McPhee likely knows. But it would probably take more than one to convince the Knights to deal Gusev as the way to solve their cap woes — especially since several teams should logically be bidding for Gusev.
Then again, the Islanders had the fifth-best regular season record in the league last season and still have Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock on ELC deals. The time to be aggressive with significant upgrades is not just later, but now.