Nikita Gusev could be a casualty of the Vegas Golden Knights' cap problems.
And the Blue Jackets should be their solution.
Gusev, a dynamic Russian winger who hasn't yet played a game in the NHL, is the KHL's reigning MVP and is considered one of - if not the - most talented hockey players outside of the NHL. His RFA rights are held by Vegas, who happens to be the only team in the NHL currently above the salary cap ceiling of $81.5M (they're at $84.2M). The Golden Knights would love to have him, but it may not be feasible, and it certainly couldn't happen without shedding salary first.
The irony is rich. The Blue Jackets moved David Clarkson's contract along with a 1st round pick to the Golden Knights during the expansion draft in 2017 so as to relieve themselves of cap difficulties. Two years later, the tables have turned. The Blue Jackets have more than $17M in cap space, fifth-most in the league, with Scott Harrington and Zach Werenski as the only notable roster players who still need to be signed. Meanwhile, Vegas is roughly $2.5M over the cap, which leaves Gusev's future in the desert in question.
According to a report from The Athletic's Jesse Granger, Vegas and Gusev's camp have negotiated over the last few weeks with both sides seeking a two-year deal, but the gap "is as wide as $2 million per year". His contract is expected to be in the $4-5M range, which would obviously hamstring Vegas in a bad way.
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The 26-year-old winger has a fantastic shot, great hockey IQ and exceptional vision. He does most of his damage from the left circle, where he either snipes shots on goal or dishes passes into the slot and through the crease. In 391 KHL games, Gusev has amassed 119 goals and 213 assists for 332 points (0.85 ppg).
The Blue Jackets are one of many teams that should be trying to find a way to acquire Gusev. Vegas - with or without Gusev - needs to shed salary.
The Golden Knights’ top-six forwards are more-or-less locked in for next season. That would mean that Gusev would start on the third line alongside Cody Eakin ($3.85M) and Alex Tuch ($4.75M). That's an expensive third line, and this is a cash-strapped team. Then there's the startling fact that Vegas has just five signed defensemen (and one signed goalie). From Vegas GM George McPhee:
“It’s pretty clear we have an opening in our bottom six. We have two openings, one in our bottom six and one in our blue line.”
The Blue Jackets aren't as strong as they were in 2018-19, but they are flush in two places: on the blue line and with depth forwards. Heck, Lukas Sedlak left for the KHL, likely due to the writing on the wall that playing time may be scarce going forward.
And with two of Vladislav Gavrikov, Scott Harrington, Dean Kukan sitting in the press-box, the Blue Jackets could certainly move a piece to help bolster their forward group. As for depth forwards, Eric Robinson, Markus Hannikainen, Sonny Milano, and Jacob Lilja are all fighting for playing time, and come in on the cheap.
Columbus is perfectly suited to bring in Gusev. They could stomach a bad contract, like Clarkson, they have a need to fortify their top-six with Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene out of the picture, and they have the types of pieces that Vegas would covet.
The Blue Jackets are well aware of the amount of talent that Gusev could bring to an NHL lineup. With July 1 in the rearview mirror, the front office should be looking outside the box for ways to instill the forward group with another top-six talent, and Gusev is the most available option out there in the NHL today.
Pardon the pun, but it's a gamble with Vegas that I don't think the Blue Jackets would regret.