Person of Interest: Who is Nikita Gusev, the newest Vegas Golden Knight?

Russia's Nikita Gusev (Martin Meissner/AP)

After signing defenceman Jimmy Schuldt out of the NCAA earlier this month and getting him into a regular season game, the Vegas Golden Knights officially brought Nikita Gusev over from the KHL by signing him to a one-year deal that will expire this summer.

The 26-year-old Gusev was one of the KHL’s top stars and adds another layer of skill to Vegas’ depth chart. With the Golden Knights up 2-1 in their series against San Jose it remains to be seen if he’ll get into the lineup, but when he does, Vegas could potentially be adding another helpful weapon.

Here’s what you need to know about the newest Vegas Golden Knight.

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HOW VEGAS ENDED UP WITH HIM

Gusev was drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 NHL Draft (202nd overall), with the 10th-last pick by Tampa Bay. So how exactly did Vegas end up with his rights?

You have to go back to the expansion draft to find out. Tampa Bay sent Gusev, a 2017 second-rounder and a 2018 fourth-rounder to Vegas in order to steer the Golden Knights away from taking either Slater Koekkoek or Jake Dotchin, a couple of 23-year-old defencemen they preferred to keep, but didn’t have room to protect.

Today, neither of those players are still with the team: Dotchin had his contract terminated in September after the team was unhappy with his fitness at training camp, and Koekkoek was dealt in January for 28-year-old depth defenceman Jan Ruutta and a seventh-round pick.

HE’S GOOD FRIENDS WITH NIKITA KUCHEROV AND USED TO OUTSCORE HIM

When it looked like the Toronto Maple Leafs were going to sign Igor Ozhiganov out of the KHL, Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov told a Russian reporter that he had lobbied then-GM Steve Yzerman to bring over not just Ozhiganov, but Gusev as well.

“Both are great players, they could help Tampa to win a Stanley Cup,” Kucherov said via translation. “I wouldn’t have recommended them if they weren’t able to. By the way, I spoke to them about taking their chances in the NHL. It’s an opportunity to play against the best players in the world. We have known each other since childhood, it would be great to win the Stanley Cup together.”

Kucherov and Gusev played with each other on Krasnaya Armiya Moskva in the MHL, Russia’s junior league below the KHL. Gusev is one year older than Kucherov, but it’s worth noting that he outscored the odds-on favourite to be this year’s Hart Trophy winner three years in a row. He was also the higher scorer of the two at the 2012 World Junior Championship. Gusev finished the silver medal effort with nine points in seven games, tied with Nail Yakupov and behind only Evgeny Kuznetsov — Kucherov finished with seven points.

A KHL SCORING CHAMPION

Gusev was this year’s KHL scoring champion by a 13-point margin. He finished with 82 points in 62 games, which was the second-highest total in league history, while his 65 assists set a new league record.

And his personal accomplishments go a bit further back than just this season. He scored 23 points in 18 playoffs game to help lead his St. Petersburg team to the 2017 Gagarin Cup and in 2018, Gusev was awarded with the regular season MVP.

Over nine KHL seasons, Gusev is 10th in all-time KHL scoring with 332 points (119 goals, 213 assists) in 391 games.

He’s also a regular at the KHL’s all-star game and in 2015 his breakaway move at the league’s skills competition went viral.

WHAT THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS ARE SAYING

Gusev is expected to practice with the Golden Knights on Monday, but his playoff usage is still in question. Part of the reason for bringing him here now was depth, but also because the contract will expire on July 1, making him and RFA, and giving him a chance to earn more money heading into his first full NHL season.

Here’s what his coach, GM and a teammate said about him after his signing became official.

GM George McPhee: “I’m not going to make any promises either way. We’ll see what happens. I like our team. I’ve liked our team all year. If we think we need him to put in the lineup, we’ll see where it goes.

“He’s a very intelligent player. Very good on the power play and so good over there that you have to sign him and find out what he can do at this level. He’s at the right age to try this and I was delighted that he worked hard to get over here. It wasn’t an easy thing. He had to give up a lot of bonuses and everything else in his contract that he already earned. Gave them back and got his release. It starts a new chapter in his life.”

Head coach Gerard Gallant: “I’m not going to use his play in the KHL [to evaluate him] but he’s a high-end player. We’ll see what he does in practice. I’m very confident with my lineup right now. We’ll do the job the way we’re going to do the job. He’s another player to our team, and that’s what makes it good. If we don’t need him right now, we’ll see where it goes.”

Defenceman Pierre-Edouard Bellemare: “His style of play fitting into our style of play is going to be the most important part, more than how is he going to do by himself in the league,” Bellemare told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “The guy has been putting up enough points to know that he’ll be talented enough to play here.”

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