The Leafs announced yesterday that they will be bringing former New Jersey Devil and Florida Panther Nikita Gusev on for a Professional Try-Out (PTO) this training camp. The PTO allows the Leafs to bring the player officially into their training camp, without offering them a contract for the season yet.
They also announced that Joshua Ho-Sang would be brought in on a PTO as well, much earlier in the offseason.
The question I want to answer today is: would either of those players fit onto the Leafs this year? More specifically, are they good enough to warrant being signed to a contract?
Gusev has almost 100 games in the NHL, mostly with the Devils. While being rather new to the NHL, Gusev is actually 29 years old, so he’s on the sunset end of his hockey career. Before coming to North America, he had a solid career in Russia’s KHL. Having achieved success there, he seems determined enough to make it in the NHL that he’s willing to come to Leafs training camp without a contract, rather than just go play in Russia again.
Ho-Sang is 25 and at the point where either he’s going to make a full time NHL job or not. He had a few stints in the NHL with the New York Islanders, but was never able to hold on to a job. Since Barry Trotz took over the Islanders in 2018, Ho-Sang only played 10 games in that first 2018-19 season, and hasn’t seen an NHL game since.
The table below shows Evolving Hockey’s GAR model, expressed in terms of per 60 minutes of ice time, for the last 5 seasons. It includes the PTO signings along with some of the bottom-six role candidates that the Leafs have with significant enough ice time over the last 5 seasons. Left out are Adam Brooks, Kirill Semyonov, and Nicholas Robertson, due to a lack of significant ice time. For information on what each of these things mean, consult this glossary.
The primary columns we want to look at is the GAR/60 and WAR/60 columns. They bear the same meaning: overall quality as determined by this statistical model, just one is expressed in terms of goals and the other is expressed in terms of wins.
We can see that Josh Ho-Sang sits near the top of this group, while Nikita Gusev is near the bottom. All of the hype is on the recently-PTO-signed Gusev, but looking at this, it’s hard to argue that he deserves a chance on the Leafs more than Ho-Sang.
However, it’s important to note that Ho-Sang has been out of the NHL for the last two seasons. The question hangs in the air: can he still perform at that level?
Obviously neither of these players were going to displace Jason Spezza, but it’s interesting to note that some guys like Michael Amadio, Ilya Mikheyev, and Josh Anderson rate higher than Gusev in this model.
Of course, one publicly available model isn’t enough to really make a determination here. Another model is the one by Top Down Hockey, accessible through JFresh Hockey’s graphic cards.
As you can see, once again, this model much prefers Josh Ho-Sang to Nikita Gusev. There’s no real reason they can’t sign both, but it doesn’t really appear that Gusev is any better than the depth that Toronto already has.
Particularly concerning is Gusev’s significantly negative effect at even strength defense. Over the years, team defense has been one of the biggest areas of weakness in Toronto, and adding Gusev to that seems concerning. That’s not to say Ho-Sang is a defensive stalwart either, but the numbers show that Gusev’s negative effect is much worse.
The last comparison between these two we will make is using Micah Blake McCurdy’s Environment Distiller on HockeyViz.com. This tool shows us a heat map of how each player affects the team in different areas of the ice, as well as their overall offensive and defensive expected goals, and other fun things.
Here is Gusev’s most recent season with New Jersey. Things look really bad! He’s creating a black hole in front of the offensive net, and a sieve in front of his own net. (Note that in this case, a positive number on defense is a bad thing).
But, here’s where things get really interesting. Take a look at how different things look when Gusev moved to Florida. Those numbers (+68% on offense!!) are insane. Clearly he hit the ground running in a different offensive scheme, or different set of teammates than what he had in New Jersey. Now, of course this is only ~140 minutes of ice time, so it does have to be taken with a bit of a grain of salt, but even if he’s half as good as he looked in Florida, he’d be a top-tier player.
For Ho-Sang, we can look at both his 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, which was the only seasons where he got any reasonable amount of ice time. Notice the significant decline on offense between 2016-17 and 2017-18. It’s not an issue of linemates either, as for both seasons his most common linemates were Anthony Beauvillier and Frans Nielsen. Perhaps Ho-Sang unfairly felt the consequences of Nielsen’s decline, but it’s obvious that he looked significantly worse in his sophomore season.
The group of forwards for Toronto is an exciting puzzle for Sheldon Keefe and company to solve. Many questions still linger around just these two. Can Ho-Sang play like he did in 2016-17? Can Gusev play like he did in Florida? Does the coaching staff prefer to give these opportunities players they’ve developed in house, like Engvall and Brooks?
I can’t say what they’ll do, and there doesn’t seem to be a wrong path here. All I can say is that it’s a good idea for Toronto to give PTOs to these kinds of enigmatic players and just see if they can find a fit with the rest of the group.
Most of the time, PTO players don’t get signed to contracts with the team they sign a PTO with. It can be an audition opportunity in a big time hockey city like Toronto which allows smaller market teams that have depth concerns to see if they like how that player looks. I wouldn’t be expecting either to make Toronto’s opening night roster. But it’d sure be cool if they did!