(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
In exchange for selecting Jason Garrison, and his exorbitant contract, in the Expansion Draft, the Golden Knights received a 2nd round pick (which they traded for Keegan Kolesar), a 4th round pick (which they selected Paul Cotter) and Nikita Gusev.
Three assets in exchange for not only taking a bad contract off the hands of a contending team, but also laying off players like Yanni Gourde, J.T. Brown, Andrej Sustr, Slater Koekkoek, and others.
It was a cross between the expansion situations with Columbus and the New York Islanders and that of Minnesota and Florida, but it most resembled the pickle Anaheim found itself in.
With the Ducks, Vegas received Shea Theodore for laying off Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson and picking up the bad contract of Clayton Stoner. Anaheim’s available options were better, but Garrison’s contract was much worse.
So, from Tampa Vegas got a pair of picks and an asset who was sitting over in Russia waiting for the time to come to make the leap to the NHL. No matter when that happened, he would become a Golden Knights.
If you go through every trade Vegas executed at the Expansion Draft, it’s reasonable to believe that Gusev’s value at the Expansion Draft was somewhere between a 1st round pick and a 3rd round pick. The exact value depends on how badly Tampa needed to get rid of Garrison’s contract as well as how much they valued their exposed players.
Since that day, George McPhee and the Golden Knights tried to diminish Gusev’s market price, while the Russian has done nothing but raise it. Finally it came to a head yesterday when the Devils sent a measly package of a 2nd and a 3rd round pick to end the Gusev in Vegas saga.
When Vegas acquired Gusev, he had just finished a breakout season putting up 71 points in the 2016-17 season. It was the first time he scored more than 40 points in the KHL. On the international stage he had dominated the World Junior tournament years prior and put up impressive numbers at the World Cup but his track record as short.
Since, he’s won back-to-back KHL MVP’s, broke the record for assists in a season, won a Gold medal, dominated at the IIHF World Championships and cemented himself as the best player outside of the NHL. (Read more about that here.)
In other words, he went from a player who appeared to be headed in the right direction to one who burst into a full fledged superstar everywhere but the NHL. Whatever his stock was in June of 2017, it has surely risen dramatically since.
Then there are the Golden Knights who did the opposite. At every pass, they diminished his value.
First, they burned his entry-level contract allowing Gusev to become an RFA this offseason. Rather than pay him $925,000 for a full season, they were forced to re-sign him at a much higher price with the fear that he could return to Russia and Vegas get nothing. This was almost certainly done to guarantee he would actually make the leap to the NHL, but it devalued him along the way.
Then, Vegas created cap hell by adding players like Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Paul Stastny, as well as overpaying for Ryan Reaves and missing on Nick Holden. This put them in a position where a $4 million ask from Gusev was unreasonable signaling to other teams that Vegas was open for business. Desperate teams make desperate moves.
Finally, they started the intentional devaluing, which is the real shame. At every press conference, when asked, McPhee would return lukewarm answers on the future of Gusev. Rather than talk him up by saying things like “he’s the best player outside the NHL and it’s not even close” McPhee would say things like “we’re going to accommodate him” or “we’ll see what develops,” or my personal favorite when I asked if having Gusev helped allow them to trade Haula and he said “uh, yeah, I guess so.”
And it’s been going on for years. Every time there was a question asked about Gusev (almost always by me), he was noncommittal. It all appeared to be a tactic to help in negotiating a lesser contract, but it backfired when it became evident they were going to trade him.
Then there’s the playoffs. When Gusev did come over, the Golden Knights opted to sit him in the press box in favor of Brandon Pirri. Instead of showing faith in the player and getting a sense for what he was going to become, they benched him. Instead of working him hard in practice to gain more intel on the player he’d become, they had him skate around in circles with the healthy scratches. And when asked to Gerard Gallant, he was essentially viewed as an afterthought, not a valuable piece to an organization.
There are plenty of other examples as well that while insignificant individually add up to continue this trend.
The Golden Knights simply did not handle the situation well at any pass, and now, they are stuck with a pair of draft picks that will do nothing to help a Cup contending team, and a giant matzah ball hanging out as Gusev begins his NHL career in New Jersey.
Every goal he scores, every play he makes, every time he does anything that helps his team, Vegas looks worse and worse.
“Oh what could have been” they’ll say. But instead, McPhee opted for a 2nd and a 3rd rather than finding a way. And now, he’s staring at Filip Forsberg 2.0.
Managing a hockey team is hard, and mistakes will be made, but this one was completely avoidable.
It reminds me of a memorable time in my childhood. I was at a baseball game with my mom when I was about 2 years old. I found a nickel on the ground. I picked it up, pumped at what I’ve discovered. But like any 2-year-old would think, I figured, might as well try to eat it. I put it in my mouth, bit down, and realized, the only way I could make this happen was to swallow it. My mom screamed, “No, no!” don’t you eat that. She told me it would come back to haunt me later. In my rebellious terrible two stage, I became very still, I looked her in the eyes and my 2-year-old self said “Mom, I don’t care what you say, I’m eating this because I found it.” Well, I probably said something much less profound, but the message was there. She warned and warned and warned, until finally the moment of truth came. I took the nickle, put it in my mouth as she reached out for me, and I swallowed it whole. The rest, is a painful history that still gives me bathroom related nightmares. I knew what to expect, but I did it anyway.
That’s the Golden Knights and Gusev, and now, they have to deal with the shit that comes along with it.
(FACT: That story of 2-year-old Ken is completely and utterly fabricated. I was a good boy, but you get the point.)