Nikita Gusev may score 60 points in the NHL this season. He's been the best player in the world outside of the NHL for a number of seasons now and his game may very well translate to the top hockey league on the planet. He's never played here so it's a bit of an unknown, but a lot stacks up in his ledger. That's why he wants in excess of $4 million per season which is also why the Vegas Golden Knights cannot afford to keep him on the roster.
VGK GM George McPhee acknowledged this reality on Monday, sending Gusev to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a pair of draft picks: a third in 2020 and a second in 2021.
For those keeping score, Vegas collected the rights to Gusev, a second and fourth round pick from the Tampa Bay Lightning during the expansion draft in exchange for agreeing to select Jason Garrisson. Now they've converted Gusev into two more picks so the haul for taking on Garrisson's contract is now two second rounders, a third and a fourth. It's the expansion selection which keeps on giving.
McPhee has traded one bag of magic beans for another. Gusev may be closer to reaching his NHL potential but draft picks in the hands of VGK head scout Bobby Lowes also have value. Lowes is a proven commodity with a reputation for turning picks into NHL players. He used a sixth round pick to select Mark Stone during his time with the Ottawa Senators. Stone is now a superstar and so is Lowes in his own right.
According to capfriendly.com, Vegas has committed $80,474,999 to 22 roster players and has $1,025,011 left to spend and remain compliant with the NHL salary cap for the coming season. Vegas has 22 players on its NHL roster at this point, made up of 14 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies. They'll likely trim a forward but need to add a blueliner. Vegas is under the cap and will likely have around $1 million in room when season begins. The franchise will also have a surplus of three draft picks over the next three seasons which puts them in excellent shape at the trade deadline should they decide to add a player for the stretch. They'll have cap space and the assets to complete a move.
Oh, sure, McPhee could try and trade a player already on his roster earning north of $4 million to make room for Gusev. Moving money in the NHL is difficult these days but McPhee could likely do it. It would create a massive crater on a Stanley Cup contending lineup in order to provide opportunity for a player still unproven in the NHL. But he could do it.
Or, McPhee could package up a few players to try and get to the number he needs in order to sign Gusev. But that's a little more complicated. Let's say McPhee trades a forward earning $2 million and a defenseman earning $2 million. There's your $4 million, right? Except he has to replace those players going out and they'll likely eat up $2 million of the room just made. Throw in another player, one might say. That's three players from a contender displaced for a question mark. Certainly it might work out.
But what if it doesn't?
McPhee's team went to the Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago and appeared to be headed on a deep run last spring before the unpredictability of the NHL post-season struck. Regardless, Vegas is a favorite in the Western Conference with its current roster and McPhee can't discount that to give Gusev what he wants. Let's be clear, Gusev's ask isn't unreasonable. And if this were next summer when McPhee is likely to have more cap room, this deal would likely get done. But this isn't NHL Fantasy League. This is the real thing governed by a CBA. Tough decisions have to get made.
There's a case for McPhee making moves to accommodate Gusev. But McPhee and his staff have built a program. The roster construction allows the team to play fast and heavy. They have depth on the blueline and Cody Glass just might push his way into the organization's top 12 forwards. Losing Gusev isn't palatable but it's hardly a blow to the club's competitive outlook. Trading Gusev doesn't create a hole on the roster whereas keeping him could have done just that.
They've been aggressive in signing good, young players to long term deals at affordable rates. They've built themselves a contending window which might last for close to a decade. Vegas isn't a bottom feeder needing to take risks to get better fast. This team will be good for a number of years.
McPhee's job is to hand head coach Gerard Gallant a roster with an opportunity to earn a playoff spot and beyond. He's done that. And with his shrewd handling of the cap and he's guaranteed that won't change for a number of years.
The reality in today's NHL is that good teams have good players. Those players get paid. A lot. And there's only so much room on a payroll for top paid players. Vegas is short on room right now but will soon have both an elite core locked up and cap space to augment the roster. The timing on Gusev is just slightly off.
But that's the reality for elite teams in the NHL. They have good players who earn top dollar which eventually causes teams to brush up against the cap. It's the price of being a contender in the NHL today.