Is Nikita Gusev Attempting An NHL Comeback?

Nikita Gusev spent two seasons in the NHL before returning to the KHL. A surprise appearence practicing with other NHL players has people wondering if he's attemtping to come back.
Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils
Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

Before the Fourth of July holiday kicks off in the United States (or as Canada Day was going on, for our Canadian readers) NHL free agency officially opened on Monday July 1st. The biggest news of the day was Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Marchessault leaving behind their old clubs for the Nashville Predators. Both were signed to multiyear pacts. NHL teams spent more than $1 billion on contracts on Monday alone.

With all the transactions going on, a rather interesting gathering took place that might raise a few hockey twitter eyebrows. “Tyler Toffoli, Nikita Gusev and Kevin Bahl walk into an ice rink” might sound like the beginning of a bad hockey joke. Instead it was the group of former New Jersey Devils players who took the ice at New Jersey’s practice rink shortly before Devils Development Camp began.

Is Nikita Gusev Attempting An NHL Comeback?

Bahl makes sense as he just recently traded to the Calgary Flames as part of the Jakob Markstrom trade package. Toffoli had signed with the San Jose Sharks prior to this pickup practice session. Gusev might be the most interesting of the three. The former Devil is said to be just “passing through” and decided to get a little practice in while in the area.

Let’s focus on Gusev here. The Devils have been known to let former players, players not under contract, and other NHL players use their practice rink when available, a gesture those players appreciate. Gusev went back to his native Russia after two unspectacular seasons in the NHL, spent mostly with New Jersey. In 97 NHL games Gusev had 17 goals and 37 assists for 54 career points. in April 2021 The Devils placed him on waivers to terminate his contract and he was signed and played out the season with the Florida Panthers.

That was then and this is now. Gusev was named KHL’s most valuable player (they refer to it as “The golden Stick Award”) for the second time in his career. He’s coming off a season that saw him score 23 goals and 66 assists in only 68 regular season games. Could he be trying to make an NHL comeback?

Practicing in New Jersey would make sense for Gusev. For one, he already has a familiarity with the organization and was probably able to easily arrange this “pick up practice” with his contacts in the organization. In addition, the New York City metro area is a good place to get attention, meet with agents, and meet with some league personnel if his objective is to be on an NHL team this coming season.

Signing in New Jersey both does and doesn’t make sense for Gusev. The current Devils team is a very different one, and expecting more success, than the team he left in 2021. Gusev was acquired and spent most of his Devils tenure under former general manager Ray Shero but now it’s Tom Fitzgerald running the show. Fitzgerald loaded up on bottom six forwards to change the look of that part of the Devils lineup with free agency and trades so far this offseason. The bottom six group is so crowded current players like Nathan Bastian might be left out and be traded.

Where would Gusev fit? You have to temper your expectations that those KHL numbers aren’t going to translate to NHL success. After all, the Devils already tried that. Maybe the Devils are kicking the tires on offering Gusev a PTO for the upcoming training camp and preseason.

Speaking of “former Devils trying to make an NHL comeback from the KHL” let’s compare Gusev to Ilya Kovalchuck. Gusev is 31 years old, compared to Kovalchuk’s 35 when he tried to make an NHL return with the Los Angeles Kings in 2018-2019. Gusev was away from the NHL for three seasons. Kovalchuk was “retired” from the NHL for five seasons. Kovalchuk had considerable NHL success prior to his first return to Russia such as tying for the 2003-2004 Rocket Richard Trophy and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012. Meanwhile Gusev’s career high for NHL points in a season was only 44 points.

Both had international conflicts out of their control complicating their NHL returns. Kovalchuk’s last NHL season in 2019-2020 was the pandemic shortened season that resumed in the NHL playoff bubble. Gusev’s potential return comes as the hockey world finds itself with an odd place with Russian players in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine. Bob McKenzie wrote about the “Russian effect” of draft eligible Russian players not being allowed in important tournaments such as the World Junior Championship. Those problems specifically don’t apply to Gusev but that doesn’t mean that it would be an easy transition back.

Gusev has yet to say if he’s attempting an NHL comeback. His appearance at Devils Development Camp, during free agency of all times, only fuels speculation. Newark, New Jersey isn’t the type of place someone from Russia is just “passing through”, after all.