The key to the Toronto Maple Leafs this season may be whether they get enough help from support players to take some of the weight off of the core group. With the departure of Zach Hyman, Nick Foligno and Alex Galchenyuk, GM Kyle Dubas is relying on Michael Bunting, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase and possibly rookie Nick Robertosn to fill the rather sizable hole on the left side, but on Friday the club may have added some insurance by signing veteran winger Nikita Gusev to a professional tryout contract.
The 29-year-old played nine years in the KHL with CSKA Moscow, Khabarovsk Amur, Khanty-Mansiysk, and SKA St. Petersburg and had his rights traded from Tampa to Vegas to New Jersey before coming to North America in 2019 on a two-year, $9 million deal.
The winger led the Devils with 31 assists and finished second in scoring behind Kyle Palmieri in his debut season, but struggled under new coach Lindy Ruff last year, scoring only five points in 20 games before terminating his contract in April and signing with the Florida Panthers for the remainder of the season.
Gusev is small and speedy, and is primarily a one-zone player capable of generating and creating offensive chances, but is not particularly good in his own zone. Depending on how he plays in camp, Toronto could sign the veteran to a league minimum deal, which could be a bargain as his skill set as a playmaker would be a good fit on one of the Leafs top two lines, with either Auston Matthews or John Tavares as trigger men.
The PTO is a clear sign that the Leafs have moved on from the idea of bringing back Galchenyuk (who is still unsigned) and may want to buy time on Robertson (who just turned 20 and will likely start this season in the AHL). Ritchie is a big bruising winger, but his skating may not allow him to play up in the lineup on a consistent basis, while Kase’s durability is in question after missing most of last season with concussion issues.
Bunting is the most intriguing of the additions, having scored 10 goals in 21 games with Arizona last season. Former Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet called him a “greasy” player, willing to go to the front of the net and dirty areas to score, which could translate to being a good compliment to the high-skill combos of Matthews-Mitch Marner or Tavares-William Nylander.
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