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Carp: Should Russian Players Be Concerned About Playing For The Golden Knights?

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s returns to SinBin.vegas for the 2019-20 season. His weekly column publishes every Sunday during the Golden Knights season and is brought to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm.**

By nature, I’m no conspiracy theorist.

I don’t believe in aliens. I think Oswald acted alone when he assassinated JFK. I’m pretty sure Elvis is dead, though when I see Nick Ferraro perform as the “Philly Elvis,” sometimes a shadow of doubt creeps into my mind (only kidding).

But I have to admit, what I’m seeing with Russian-born players and the Golden Knights has me scratching my head and wondering just what the hell is going on?

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

In the brief three-year history of the franchise, there have been three Russian players who were with the Golden Knights — Vadim Shipachyov, Nikita Gusev and Valentin Zykov. Their contributions have amounted to virtually nil. Two of the three have not had pleasant endings and Zykov could also find himself exiting with a less-than-favorable sendoff once his 20-game suspension ends.

First, let’s be clear about all of this. I’m not accusing George McPhee of sabotaging the NHL careers of the trio. Remember, this is the guy who drafted Alex Ovechkin when he was the general manager in Washington and no one’s going to deny that worked out pretty well.

So if you want to paint McPhee as a modern-day Harold Ballard who detested the Russians and perhaps saw their existence in the NHL as a necessary evil, you’d be missing the mark by a country mile.

That said, the fact none of the three have made a positive contribution to the franchise makes you wonder if something is amiss in the evaluation process or in the projection of what these guys could do.

Shipachyov didn’t produce, was sent to the minors, balked at being demoted and was eventually released after playing just three games and scoring one goal. He and his family never found a comfort level in Las Vegas nor was he able to find a comfort level on the ice. He is currently back in the Kontinental Hockey League playing with Dynamo Moscow and he leads the team in scoring with 21 points.

Gusev never got a chance to show he couldn’t play with the Knights. He was unable to break into the lineup during the playoffs, his time on the ice limited to practice. And when the Knights found his asking price to remain with the team was too steep, he was off to New Jersey. He’s doing pretty well with the Devils. He had three goals and four points in his first seven games and has quickly become a fan favorite in Newark.

Zykov, who had two goals in 10 games last year playing limited minutes (he averaged 11:37 TOI during his 10 games last year), worked hard over the summer, made the team out of training camp and had two assists in his first seven games playing on the third line before he got popped for violating the NHL’s performance-enhancing substances program.

I’m not going to get into the whole issue about how it went down, how Zykov essentially got thrown under the bus by some of his teammates and how McPhee reacted. That has all been covered.

I will say it would be disingenuous to think what happened to Zykov and what happened to Nate Schmidt a year ago are the same. The fact is, we’ve never known what was found in Schmidt’s system to trigger the positive test and we’re probably never going to know what exactly Zykov was taking (he and his agent said they were over-the-counter supplements).

Until the NHL becomes more transparent with its drug policy and the testing is more rigorous, you’ll never get the truth.

So, what happens when Zykov serves out his suspension? Do the Knights welcome him back? Do they claim he breached his contract and subsequently cut him loose and eat his $675,000 contract? Do they send him back to the AHL?

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Differences Between Ice Surface Size

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The NHL rink is 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. An international rink is nearly identical at 197 feet long but it’s significantly wider at 98.4 feet. Those 13 feet make a major difference in how the game is played and it makes transitioning from one ice size to the other a challenge.

Over the summer I had a chance to speak to two different wingers who were used to one size and then had to suddenly swap to the other. The first was Lucas Elvenes, a Golden Knights draft pick who has played in Sweden throughout his entire career before finishing up this season with the Chicago Wolves. The second was Mark Stone, who went with Team Canada to play in the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.

Both agreed that the difference is significant and it absolutely takes some time to get used to.

It took some time to get used to for sure. I think the first game was difficult especially for us playing a good team. Being good hockey players the 20 of us figured it out pretty quick. -Mark Stone

Oh yeah, it’s a huge difference. Every time you come into the offensive zone you are close to the goal. Back home you have to work more to get a shot. -Lucas Elvenes

Where both noticed it the most was when their team had the man-advantage. Both Elvenes and Stone, while at massively different levels, play the same position on the power play. Each are set up to the goalie’s left on the half wall playing as both a shooting option as well as a pivot to move the puck out to the point or through the seem.

Power play is a lot different. You feel like you have all this time and space. If you are at the top of the circle, taking a shot from there it’s not going in. It’s just such a far shot and a bad angle. From the circles to the boards it just adds in a lot more room. -Stone

The D-Zone is always close to you, so you can’t make mistakes. The gap is tough for me because the forwards are always close to me. Plus the guys are big and like to hit.

Nikita Gusev plays the same role, but on the other side. But that’s New Jersey’s problem now.

The question is how will other Europeans in the Vegas pipeline translate on the smaller ice? Both Stone and Elvenes agreed that eventually the size difference fades and it just becomes hockey.

It’s going to matter, it just matters how much.

McPhee Bobbles Another Russian, This Time In A Much Different Way

(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.

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Nikita Gusev Traded To The New Jersey Devils For Future Draft Picks

Vegas Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee announced today, July 29, that the Golden Knights have acquired a third round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and a second round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for forward Nikita Gusev.

We did our best to accommodate Nikita and his salary request but were unable to do so. He is a good person, a good player and we wish him well in New Jersey -George McPhee

When you have a roster comprised of players who are deserving of a certain salary range you are not always able to make room for everyone. This is the reality of having a good team in the salary cap world. After this trade, we now own nine picks in the first three rounds of the next two drafts. These picks will help boost our organizational depth and add to our pool of prospects. Although we were not able to make this work I am really happy with where we are at with our roster. -McPhee

Gusev was signed by the Golden Knights to a one-year, entry level contract on April 14, 2019. The team acquired Gusev’s rights during the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft from the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh round (202nd overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

Russian Agent Threatening Nikita Gusev’s Return To KHL

According to Yuriy Nikolayev, the agent that represents Nikita Gusev in Russia, a deadline has been set. If the Golden Knights do not sign or trade Gusev by this date, the Russian forward will return to the KHL.

Vegas hasn’t traded forward Nikita Gusev to another club yet, although I know there have been offers. I am constantly in touch with a company representing Nikita’s interests in North America. Vegas knows Nikita’s preferences and wishes. Now the ball is on their side. The rights to Gusev in the KHL belong to SKA St. Petersburg. There is a certain deadline, after which I will be forced to go to specific negotiations with the “army” club (SKA St. Petersburg). –Yuriy Nikolayev to Championat.com

Gusev’s North American agent is J.P. Barry of CAA. It is common for Russian players to have different agents for each league. One to represent them in the NHL and another to represent them in the KHL.

Whenever news comes out of agents it is important to consider motive. First and foremost, the agents are looking out for the best interest of their client. Gusev clearly wants to play in the NHL and it appears both Nikolayev and Barry are trying to make that a reality.

However, there’s always a purpose behind a threat. Nikolayev mentioned a specific date (would be nice if we knew that date) at which he will be “forced” to start negotiating with SKA St. Petersburg. Whether that date is something set by the KHL or if it’s been arbitrarily set by Gusev’s camp it certainly feels like another negotiation ploy to put even more pressure on the Golden Knights.

Then there’s money. If Gusev signs in the NHL, does Nikolayev get any compensation? Does he benefit more financially if Gusev signs again in the KHL?  These are questions I do not currently have answers to but certainly could impact the decision for Nikolayev to put out this threat.

Yet again, the Nikita Gusev saga continues to get more and more complicated and there seems to be no end in sight.

Well, other than this deadline.

VGK Were In On Micheal Ferland In Free Agency

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

On Wednesday the Vancouver Canucks signed Micheal Ferland to a four-year deal with an AAV of $3.5 million per year. Ferland is winger who plays a 200-foot game, forechecks hard, plays in all situations, and has the ability to play up and down a lineup.

At the trade deadline, Ferland’s name was consistently tossed around in the rumors and the Golden Knights were apparently hot after him.

Fast forward to free agency, when Ferland was looking for a new contract as a UFA, and somehow, once again, the Golden Knights were in the mix.

I like Ferland, the only question you have about him is his health, his injuries, but there was a lot of interest in him. I heard Calgary was in on him, I heard Vegas was in on him, someone told me St. Louis was very interested in Ferland and Vancouver gave him the 4th year and they got him. Of all the guys who waited later, I think he was the guy who most teams were interested in. –Elliotte Friedman, 31 Thoughts Podcast

With what money?

Of course, we aren’t sure exactly what the Golden Knights offered, but it’s reasonable to think it was somewhere in the $2-$4 million ballpark. The exact range the Golden Knights are looking at with Nikita Gusev.

If they were willing to sign Ferland, they must have had a plan to make another move to offset the cost against the salary cap.

It makes sense why the Golden Knights would be interested as he’s essentially a safer Gusev. He’s done it year in and year out, plus he’s much more of a stylistic fit for Gerard Gallant than Gusev appears to be. But again, if they had an interest in him, there must be a blueprint to sign a 3rd line wing between the range of $2-$4 million.

Signing Ferland would have almost certainly meant the departure of Gusev, but missing out may signal something else. The offseason now rolls on, and the Gusev situation just keeps getting weirder and weirder without any conclusion seemingly in sight.

Comparing Recent Contracts To Nikita Gusev’s Asking Price

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Nikita Gusev’s contract resolution is the great mystery of the 2019 offseason. Reportedly, both sides would like a two-year deal with Gusev looking for $4 million per year and the Golden Knights wanting $2 million.

He’s arguably the best hockey player in the world to have never stepped foot on NHL ice. He might be Vadim Shipachyov. He might be Nikita Kucherov. He’s probably somewhere in between.

His situation is unique though as he’s a restricted free agent without arbitration rights. However, his ability (willingness) to return to the KHL leaves the Golden Knights in danger of walking away with nothing if a deal is not reached.

The eventual outcome of the negotiation will likely determine where Gusev ends up playing next season. If it’s closer to $2 million, he’s probably a Golden Knight, but if it’s pushing $4 million, he might end up being sent away via trade.

Since June 1st, 18 players have signed NHL contracts between $2-4 million AAV. They range from ages 22 to 35 including RFAs, RFAs with arbitration rights, and UFAs.

AAVGPTOIPS
Alex Chiasson$2.15 M223816:584.0
Mattias Janmark$2.3 M62515:131.3
Artturi Lehkonen$2.4 M113115:332.3
Alex Iafallo$2.425 M153316:502.3
Joel Armia$2.6 M132315:482.0
Colin Wilson$2.6 M122713:342.2
Carl Hagelin$2.75 M51914:441.2
Richard Panik$2.75 M143316:373.2
Danton Heinen$2.8 M113413:583.3
Valtteri Filppula$3.0 M173114:163.9
Kasperi Kapanen$3.2 M204416:354.4
Ryan Dzingel$3.375 M265616:495.7
Andreas Johnsson$3.4 M204313:404.9
Micheal Ferland$3.5 M174014:064.7
Alexander Kerfoot$3.5 M154214:533.4
Brett Connolly$3.5 M224613:205.2
Brandon Tanev$3.5 M142914:072.7
Joonas Donskoi$3.9 M143713:253.4

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