New Jersey Devils: Nikita Gusev heading down dangerous path

NEWARK, NJ- October 04: Nikita Gusev #97 of the New Jersey Devils celebrates his first NHL goal with teammates during his first NHL game against the Winnipeg Jets on October 4, 2019 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ- October 04: Nikita Gusev #97 of the New Jersey Devils celebrates his first NHL goal with teammates during his first NHL game against the Winnipeg Jets on October 4, 2019 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images) /

New Jersey Devils forward Nikita Gusev is trending in the wrong direction. He better get himself back on track soon.

Scratching your leading goal scorer seems like a risky and ill-advised move. Clearly no one told New Jersey Devils head coach John Hynes. Nikita Gusev, tied for first on the Devils in goals, will be scratched against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In fairness, he shares the team lead in goals with Blake Coleman and Kyle Palmeri. But the point still stands. On a team starved for offense, scratching one of your better goal scorers is well, a bit of a head-scratching move.

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Now, the Devils seem to have reasons for this as he is a bit of a possession black hole (more on that later). This situation, however, has reminded me of another former Vegas Golden Knight from the KHL, Vadim Shipachyov.

Similarities Between Shipachyov and Gusev are Striking

Upon reading the news that Gusev would find himself in the pressbox for Wednesday’s game against the Lightning, the similarities between the two became clear.

For starters, both players stood out for their KHL teams, finding themselves in the top five for points in the KHL at different times. Both came to the NHL in order to carve out a meaningful career in North America. As well both players found/find themselves criminally underused for what type of player they are with their teams.

For Shipachyov it, unfortunately, was due to poor timing and a roster crunch that found him leaving Vegas and the NHL altogether. For Gusev it ended up also being a roster crunch as well as more importantly and differently, a cap crunch, ending in his departure to the Devils.

Both players found themselves made expendable by their teams and looking at their usages there’s reason to suggest Gusev is outside looking in with the New Jersey Devils.

First off, looking at their average time on ice, Gusev sits at 12:44 a game. Meanwhile, Shipachyov, in the three games he played only saw 10:35 a night.

Secondly, looking at their most common linemates in the preseason and regular season, another pattern emerges. Originally, Shipachyov was placed on a line with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, the top line. This preseason, Gusev found himself playing with first overall pick Jack Hughes along with a direct quote from Hynes stating that would be a starting pairing for the regular season:

"“When you look at the way Jack plays and thinks the game, Gusev is very similar with their hockey IQ, ability to make plays and read plays,” Hynes said. “Wayne is a very good complement with those guys by creating space and getting to the areas of the ice that the puck is going.”"

Then reality hit. Shipachyov found himself playing 10 minutes a night with rookie Alex Tuch and Brendan Leipsic on a third line that did not do well. This prompted Shipachyov’s demotion and eventual leave from North America, most likely for good.

Gusev saw himself most recently Pavel Zacha and Nico Hischier on the third line and only saw 11:25 of ice time against the Arizona Coyotes. The game before that, against the Vancouver Canucks, he was with Jesper Bratt and Zacha once again, only seeing 7:52 of ice time. Clearly usage in important situations is something Hynes does not have confidence in with Gusev. Is it at all warranted though?

Is Gusev Being Utilized Properly?

Gusev, an offensively minded forward (remember that for later) is not being utilized properly. To put it simply it seems Hynes is incapable of sheltering a player who has defensive faults properly. To see the evidence of this, let’s dive into Gusev’s deployment.

Gusev, for some mind-numbing reason, is being treated like a defensive stalwart shutdown forward. Looking at his usage, we can see that he starts a whopping 62.2% of his shifts in the defensive zone. To put that into perspective, in his last season in New Jersey, Brian Boyle started only 57% of his shifts in the defensive zone.

With deployment like that, no wonder Gusev currently owns a 34.4% CorsiFor percentage and a 34% FenwickFor percentage. He’s a possession black hole because he is being severely miscast in role he should not be playing.

Gusev should be playing sheltered minutes with a heavy amount of time in the offensive zone. He’s making bad giveaways because, quite frankly, he’s being asked to be a defensively smart forward in a league where he has less than ten games of experience.

What is John Hynes doing to this team? Looking deeper at some other players’ deployment, you can find such gems as John Hayden and Kevin Rooney starting 80% or higher of their shifts in the defensive zone. Clearly something is going majorly wrong in New Jersey.

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As for Gusev his deployment and subsequent scratching should be of serious concern to Devils fans. The Shipachyov comparisons are real, they are scary, and it would be a crying shame to waste Gusev’s talents because a coach can’t deploy him properly.