New Jersey Devils: Where Does Nikita Gusev Currently Fit?

Nikita Gusev #97 of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Nikita Gusev #97 of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /
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Following another weekend sweep to the Washington Capitals, the New Jersey Devils have found themselves losers of five of their past six games. One of the few consistent things about the Devils during this streak has been their line construction.

The top line, centered by Jack Hughes with Kyle Palmieri and Andreas Johnsson on the flanks, has been fantastic since its construction during a weekend back-to-back in Buffalo on January 30 and 31. While we’re on the topic of that last weekend of hockey the Devils played before their COVID-stoppage, the fourth line with Miles Wood, Mikey McLeod, and Nathan Bastian has been solid as well since putting on a show that weekend. Arguably the Devils best line of late, featuring a trio of Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, and Jesper Bratt, has been excellent while combining for nine points in the team’s last three games before Hischier’s injury.

The odd-line-out since the team’s return from the COVID-pause has been the third line, usually centered by Travis Zajac with Nikita Gusev on the wing. Yegor Sharangovich has been the most recent winger to complete the trio, with Janne Kuokkanen and Mikhail Maltsev also getting looks in the past few weeks.

Zajac has had a tough go of it since returning from a bout with COVID on January 20 in Buffalo, but even at his age, it isn’t fair to expect him to contribute offense on nightly basis. On the flip side, Gusev has been struggling since the start of the season, he’s been slotted all around the lineup, and his inconsistency is starting to show as the Devils can’t seem to capitalize when they push play.

Last season, for a majority of the second half, Gusev was electric, putting up 19 points in his final 26 games before the NHL paused its season in early-March 2020. The Russian-born winger was expected to be a rather large part of a much-improved Devils offense in 2021. In 11 games so far this year, Gusev has two “garbage” goals that turned out to be nothing more than formalities on the score sheet in losses to Washington and Buffalo and an assist that came off the leg of a Sabres defender on Thursday night. He also had an assist earlier in the season against the Islanders. While he’s been filling the scoresheet recently with three points in the last four games and posting a CF% of 60.4 during that span (following Saturday’s game), his overall play still leaves a lot to be desired.

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Never coined as a great skater, Gusev’s legs are lacking behind a Devils team that plays with pace, his shot and pass attempts are getting blocked from all parts of the ice, and he can’t seem to get a handle on the puck for more than few strides at a time. On top of that, his centerman, Zajac, is trying to adjust to a new up-tempo style of play implemented by head coach Lindy Ruff on top of recovering from COVID. Beyond the point of simply “a bad start”, where does Gusev fit on a team that seemingly has found consistency with three of its four lines?

Right now, the answer is he doesn’t fit. A move away from Zajac is necessary. He’s played roughly 40 minutes with both Zajac and Zacha as his centermen this year – by far the most of out the centermen on the team. Zacha is playing the best hockey of his career as a winger, on a line with Hischier and Bratt, so that line isn’t changing once Hischier returns. Could a move up to the very top of the lineup with Hughes be the next move? Gusev has only spent about 20 minutes of ice time with the second-year pro this year and posted a CF% of 56 while doing so. This move would require one of Palmieri or Johnsson to be bumped down the lineup, neither of them deserving of that fate.

Gusev has already paid for some of his inconsistency this year, taking a seat on the bench as a healthy scratch on a few occasions. Creating a third line of Sharangovich/Jesper Boqvist-Zajac-Kuokkanen could be a good option for the team, but obviously, not for Gusev.

For the time being, it looks like he is going to have to find his game with Zajac. His game absolutely took off last year after he was slotted with the veteran center and former-Devil Blake Coleman, so it’s not out of the possibility Gusev could start finding his game in a similar spot in the lineup as soon as the team’s next game against Washington this afternoon.

The bottom-line is Gusev needs to improve no matter where he is in the lineup. With a quarter of the Devils’ shortened 2021 campaign in the books, we could quickly get to a point of questioning whether or not Gusev, a pending UFA at season’s end, belongs with the organization, let alone where he belongs on the lineup sheet.