Handicapping the Jimmy Vesey Sweepstakes
Handicapping the Jimmy Vesey Sweepstakes
It’s time for the NHL teams to make their pitches to free agent winger Jimmy Vesey as the Hobey Baker winner is free to sign with anybody after his rights expired with the Buffalo Sabres at the midnight hour.
Vesey’s friends, teammates and those with connections to the hockey family have all stated their cases to him in casual conversation, said their peace and eventually backed off as the 23-year-old readies to make his final decision about his best path to success within the NHL.
Bruins draft pick and prospect Ryan Donato was Vesey’s teammate at Harvard last season and certainly put in his own good words for the Black and Gold. Vesey’s longtime friend Matt Grzelcyk did the same between two hockey families with Charlestown roots that go back a long way, but there’s a fine line between lobbying and becoming a nag in those kinds of situations as a kid like Donato has quickly learned.
“I’ve tried [recruiting Vesey] a little bit, but I kind of leave him alone now. I think it was wearing on him a little bit, so I kind of gave him his space. I think there’s a lot of people that have been [trying to recruit] him. I’m sure he gets it enough. It’s probably tough being in Boston and having everybody on his back a little bit, but he’s a smart kid and he’s going to make the right decision for whatever his future holds,” said Donato last month at B’s development camp. “I would definitely love for him to come to Boston for sure, but it’s up to him. He’s a great teammate and a great friend, and I hope for the best for him no matter where he goes.
“At Harvard, the things he was doing were incredible. If he can’t do it [at the NHL level] then I think it’s going to be tough for a lot of guys to do it. His game is so developed. Hopefully he’ll have an impact right away.”
With all the meetings now set up between Vesey’s camp and the interested teams, here are the chances for each of the teams on the short list to land the top prospect out of the Ivy League:
1. New York Rangers
A team that has been mentioned in connection with Vesey for quite some time, the Rangers won out on the Kevin Hayes sweepstakes a few years back in a set of circumstances similar to Vesey’s situation this summer. Hayes and Vesey have a longstanding relationship. Hayes, the former Boston College standout, would be an important figure in easing the transition for the Hobey Baker winner and former Harvard captain. Vesey would also be a major priority for the Rangers given the lack of high draft picks the Blueshirts have been able to make over the past few years, and would fill a need for a an aging team that’s traded away plenty of forward talent the past couple of years. The proximity to his home in Boston, and to friends and family, makes them an automatic contender, and playing for an Original Six team with their home games at Madison Square Garden would be a draw for any player that cares about hockey history. They’re also in a more competitive situation than teams like the Leafs, Bruins and Devils right off the bat, but one has to wonder how many more playoff years New York has with their current core group.
Chances of Vesey signing with the Rangers: fairly strong. They are considered one of the favorites headed into the meetings with teams.
2. New Jersey Devils
Don’t sleep on the Devils and their chances. Many hockey fans, and Bruins fans, have scoffed at the notion that New Jersey might have a real shot at Vesey, but it’s not a joke folks. New Jersey has a lot to offer. There a rising team getting rebuilt under GM Ray Shero that has Cory Schneider and Taylor Hall among their top players and could really make a move back into the playoffs with another winger such as the Hobey Baker winner. Beyond that, Vesey would have plenty of room on New Jersey’s roster for playing time, power play opportunities and a real stake in the fate of the team while playing a big role very, very quickly. That is a promise that Shero and New Jersey assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald will be able to make with Vesey right off the bat. Also don’t underestimate the relationship between Fitzgerald and Vesey’s dad, Jim Sr., that goes back to their Charlestown days. It’s something that will guarantee Vesey has a friend of the family he can call upon within the organization, and will once again ease his transition going from college star to NHL hopeful. Clearly Newark and the Prudential Center aren’t the places hockey hopefuls dream of while growing up aspiring to the NHL, but if Vesey is looking for his best opportunity to thrive in the league then this might be it.
Chances of Vesey signing with the Devils: they are the dark-horse candidate and could surprise at the end of this week.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
The only Western Conference team even in consideration, the Blackhawks have a lot to offer. Chicago GM Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville have each been to Foxboro to watch Vesey play in the summer league the past couple of months and they have been a very visible suitor during that time. It would be difficult for any team to top the chance for an NHL rookie to play with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane right off the bat and reports are that Toews is going to personally attend the pitch session with Vesey and his agents. That could be a closer-type move from the Blackhawks captain and will be tough for other teams to match when it comes to the “dazzle factor.” There’s also some speculation that Vesey could be wooed with a chance to play on the same line with both Toews and Kane, which is about as good as it gets for placement on an NHL roster. The chance to compete for a Stanley Cup right out of the chute would be a tempting one for Vesey This could give him the kind of high visibility role where it easily earns him the chance for a huge second contract after his two-year entry level deal. The cons: how will the Blackhawks be able to afford him on that second contract given the kind of money they already pay out to Kane, Toews etc. as part of their Cup-winning core group? Chicago needs him badly now on his entry level deal, but the question in Vesey’s mind has to be how badly the Blackhawks will need him when his price goes up a couple of years from now. One connection most haven’t talked about: Vesey’s dad’s old head coach at Merrimack, Ron Anderson, is a top scout with the Blackhawks, and that gives them another friendly face for the Vesey clan.
Chances of Vesey signing with the Blackhawks: a strong chance, but the questions about his second and third contracts might be the deal-breaker for what seems like a perfect situation.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the longtime teams linked with Vesey because his dad works for the organization as a scout, and his brother Nolan was drafted by the Toronto organization a few years back. Toronto wouldn’t seem like a good choice on first blush, but the e Leafs are a team that has no shortage of A) money and B) chances for a young player to grow and develop with a young core group led by No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews. There’s also the chance for a young player to play for a coach like Mike Babcock and Vesey has made no bones about the relationship with his GM and head coach as big selling points he’ll be looking at with each and every organization. The cons with the Leafs: it might be a few years before Toronto is really competitive and if Vesey wants to fly under the radar at all, then the Leafs would not be the place to do it. He will face a ton of pressure right off the bat with the Leafs given the hype lent to the Vesey sweepstakes this summer and it wouldn’t be pretty if the transition wasn’t a smooth one from the NCAA to the NHL. There’s also much less star-power on the Toronto roster to sell to Vesey as compared to some of the other teams in the running and fewer veteran players that can set the example.
Chances of Vesey signing with the Leafs: Toronto might be right on the outside of “favorite” status, but it’s not going to shock anybody if he signs with the Leafs.
Haggerty: What are chances Bruins sign Jimmy Vesey?
5. Boston Bruins
Another team Vesey has been linked with since the beginning of the process, the Bruins and Don Sweeney are reportedly making their sales pitch today. The sense is that Sweeney and the B’s are going to have to come up with something unexpected to blow away Vesey and his camp at this point. While Vesey has been complimentary about the chance to play for his hometown team and formed a relationship with Torey Krug a few years back on Team USA at the world championships, there are also some negatives associated with the Black and Gold. The chatter around Vesey from those that know him has long been that he’d rather avoid being the hometown hockey hero in Boston and doesn’t really want to bear the pressure of being something of a savior that’s going to help get the Bruins back into the playoffs. The Veseys have also seen the kind of criticism tossed at family friend Jimmy Hayes after he returned to Boston to play for the Bruins, and that may have turned them off from the whole B’s experience. Sure, Vesey will face criticism in every major hockey market should he play in one professionally, but in Boston his friends and family will also hear every word written, or uttered on sports talk radio. That’s a lot for a player just looking to establish himself at the NHL level and carve out a career. It might be easier to go elsewhere where the hometown kid thing isn’t a factor. There may also be some hard feelings toward the Bruins after not drafting Vesey back in 2012 when they had the chance. Some have said they actually told him they were going to select him in that draft, and in hindsight they absolutely should have. Vesey told CSN in an interview that he’s “a bit of a homebody” and that he’d enjoy playing in front of his family and friends, and in a perfect world that’s absolutely true. But the desire of a kid to play for the team he grew up rooting for might be trumped by some of the realities of the situation facing the Bruins and the continuing rebuild they’re facing over the next couple of years. There’s also the simple fact that Claude Julien is an excellent coach, but he’s not exactly a selling point to a young player looking for an opportunity as he breaks into the NHL. According to sources, the Bruins will be the last team to speak to Vesey on Wednesday. So, they'll get the last word, at the very least.
Chances of Vesey signing with the Bruins: unless Sweeney has a major rabbit in his hat in the meeting, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
6. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres have also been a team with a longstanding in the Vesey sweepstakes and GM Tim Murray went to the lengths of trading a third-round pick to the Predators for exclusive negotiating rights this summer. The Sabres made their pushes in the exclusive window, but it didn’t stop Vesey from reaching the free agency period to talk with other teams. The big selling point with the Sabres is Vesey’s friendship with star-in-the-making Jack Eichel, who could form a dangerously potent combo with the left winger for years to come in Buffalo. The two are friends and Eichel’s presence would be an instant comfort factor for the Harvard grad. There’s also the simple fact that Buffalo is a team on the rise with a talented young core group, and the Sabres could grow right along with Vesey, while providing him plenty of chances to flourish. He’ll get power-play time with the Sabres and there’s plenty of money and cap space for a big second contract should he earn it with his play. Buffalo isn’t New York, Boston, Chicago or Toronto as far as cities with a selling point for a young NHL player, but the feeling is that Vesey is much more interested in the hockey situation rather than the nightlife situation. One does wonder, however, whether the aggressive move by Murray to trade for Vesey’s rights could have actually hurt their chances in some ways given that Vesey and his camp weren’t expecting it. Buffalo ended up giving him his space this summer after a big sales pitch in July, and it was a smart move to back off the hard sell a bit.
Chances of Vesey signing with the Sabres: The Sabres have long been linked to Vesey, but they may end up falling short in the end when compared side-by-side with some of these other suitors.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins/New York Islanders
Here are a couple of late entries into the race, but it isn’t expected that either of these teams will be able to close the deal. Islanders GM Garth Snow went to see Vesey play in the summer league in Foxboro and the Penguins are coming off a Stanley Cup run that saw them remake their team under coach Mike Sullivan. Clearly the chance to play with either Sidney Crosby or John Tavares would be an enticing one for Vesey, but there doesn’t feel like there’s the same level of interest or connection with the Isles or Penguins like there is with some of the other suitors in the Vesey sweepstakes. Snow has surprised with some of his moves running the Isles before, but this may not be one of those 11th hour kinds of moves when it comes to landing the former Harvard standout.
Chances for either of these teams signing Vesey: one would expect they are slimmer than Benoit Pouliot at this point.