In 2008, University of Minnesota forward Blake Wheeler opted to forego his senior year, but in so doing, decided not to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes, who drafted him fifth overall four years earlier. Wheeler leveraged a provision in the previous (2005) collective bargaining agreement and signed instead with the Boston Bruins, eventually getting traded to the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets, where he has become one of that franchise’s more productive players over the past several seasons. Twitter wasn’t as big then, nor did the Wheeler courtship last as long, so at least in one regard, the difference between then and the hype machine surrounding Harvard graduate Jimmy Vesey is significant.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Vesey, who received the 2016 Hobey Baker Award one year after being the runner-up to Jack Eichel, is now an unrestricted free agent after passing on the chance to sign with the Nashville Predators, who drafted him 66th overall in 2012. There could be myriad reasons why Vesey spurned the Music City, but only he and those closest to him know his true motivations behind doing so. The Buffalo Sabres had multiple third-round picks in the 2016 draft, so they flipped one to the Preds for the chance to convince Vesey to forego free agency altogether and sign with them. Sabres GM Tim Murray gave it his best shot, but when you consider that the North Reading native has come this far for the right to choose his NHL destination, Murray and Co. simply weren’t going to get him to bite, no matter how compelling the sales job.
Now, some 50 days after the Sabres acquired his exclusive negotiating rights, and per the NHL’s (2013) CBA, Vesey can now talk to any NHL club who desires his services. Here are highlights, compliments of Harvard:
This is not a loophole. The 23-year-old is not engaging in any underhanded activity, as much as some out there who don’t apparently understand how collective bargaining works would like to (and of course want to convince others of the righteousness of their own ignorance) believe.
Is it unseemly? That depends on what your definition of that is, but in our free market society, Vesey is taking advantage of his immense talent for hockey while also doing something very few NHL prospects these days get to: determine his own professional hockey destination.
Some out there feel he “owed” it to Nashville to just sign with them and report just like any other draft pick, but that position assumes that we know all of what was happening behind the scenes. We obviously don’t, and there is no requirement for any of these players to come to terms with the teams that draft them. Vesey incurred risk by staying in school and not taking Nashville’s original offer to bring him out in the spring of 2015 after netting north of 30 goals for the Crimson as college hockey’s second-best offensive talent after Eichel. Graduating from Harvard was important to him, and at some point, even after he had talked on the record about signing in Nashville, something changed and he didn’t.
Vesey is not the only player to do this and he won’t be the last. However, by virtue of the ever growing groundswell of social media in the information age, Vesey is a high-profile player…arguably the highest coming off of a Hobey Baker-winning season. No one else who has come before him carries that kind of cachet, but even with the NCAA success (56 goals, 104 points in 70 games in the past two seasons), there is no guarantee he will make the same kind of impact in the NHL. However, when you factor in his skill, hockey IQ and accomplishments to date, plenty of teams are willing to roll the dice.
Two years ago, Chicago Blackhawks prospect Kevin Hayes, he of hockey Clan Hayes of Dorchester, decided not to sign with the team that made him a first-round pick in 2010, and after multiple teams courted him, settled on the New York Rangers. That decision cost him a Stanley Cup, as the ‘Hawks went on to capture their third championship in six years some 10 months after Hayes leveraged his CBA right to be a free agent.
It happens. And it also underscores that different things motivate these players beyond money or opportunity. If winning were the only thing that mattered, Hayes would have signed with Chicago. This points out the folly of anyone who is sure that Vesey will do the same simply because Chicago brain-trustees Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville personally attended some of his summer league hockey games in Foxboro.
At the same time, to believe that Vesey is a done deal to Boston simply because he grew up there and was a Bruins fan as a kid is equally foolish.
What it likely will come down to is which team Vesey feels the biggest connection to. It could very easily be a team like Chicago. Or Boston. Or Buffalo, who according to several sources, are in a nice spot with him, having given him a good faith pitch while benefiting from the behind-the-scenes work done by former Boston hockey rival and now summer liney and pal Eichel.
Vesey could be won over by the Rangers, who because of their success in wooing Hayes after stealthily pursuing him in 2014, are always going to be name players in the NHL’s version of the Game of Thrones– free agency (albeit much less dramatic). Rangers GM Jeff Gorton is a Boston-area guy and he’s got people like Gordie Clark who do well in the recruiting department (both are longtime former members of the Boston Bruins front office/scouting staff). Don’t underestimate the power of Broadway.
The New Jersey Devils are another team emerging as a favorite to get him; GM Ray Shero has added some impressive forward talent to his club over the past two seasons, and the Newark-based club can overcome the negative pull of the playing digs with some solid selling of recent drafts. Hero’s right-hand man,Tom Fitzgerald, has a direct connection to the Vesey family as well.
Then of course there are the Toronto Maple Leafs- they’re sure to be in the mix, too. How much, is up for debate as making the money work might be an issue for them, but Vesey’s father and brother are both in the Leafs organization. When it comes to family, that’s a big selling point for just about anyone.
Finally, I wouldn’t count out a club like the Philadelphia Flyers being in on the Vesey sweeps. Ron Hextall is an aggressive GM who has his team on the rise, as their late-season surge to K.O. the Bruins on the final weekend of the 2016 NHL season can attest. Think the Flyers couldn’t use a plug-and-play LW with Vesey’s upside? Think again. It wouldn’t surprise in the least to see a club come out of left field to land him, and Philly is my dark horse to do it. (EDIT- So, Philly was not in on the Vesey sweeps. Surprising, but another keystone state team- the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins- did meet with him on 8/16. The Penguins were not a club linked to Vesey much since his decision in March not to sign with Nashville, but it makes sense and they might be the ones who sneak in and spirit him away. We’ll see. – KL)
In circling back to the Bruins, there are plenty of reasons to think that they could end up landing the prize. Refuting some reports out there, a source close to the Vesey camp said that he hasn’t ruled the Bruins out. On the contrary- the B’s and GM Don Sweeney are in prime position to show him how serious they are. Will Sweeney’s Harvard credentials and the connection he has with Vesey’s representation help? It just might. Getting Vesey is key not just because he’s a talent the team has coveted for years, but because he also opens up trade options to assist Sweeney in landing an upgrade on defense. It’s not a zero-sum game- the Bruins will likely have to move on a defenseman via trade at some point, but Vesey in the fold means flexibility and an ability to be able to give up pieces of value to land the defenseman the Bruins want.
It’s a delicate balance, but Boston has a real opportunity here. When they come to the table, it may or may not be enough to convince him, but you can bet that they’ll try. They, too, have connections- assistant amateur scouting chief Scott Fitzgerald (Tom’s brother) and close friends like Matt Grzelcyk, Ryan Fitzgerald, Harvard teammates Ryan Donato and Wiley Sherman to name a few. It’s just a shame that they didn’t draft him in 2011 when they had the chance to get him in the sixth round. Or even 2012- when they could have spent the 24th overall choice on him in lieu of Malcolm Subban. The opportunities were there, and one can only wonder if Vesey will remind them of that fact when they meet.
Ultimately, though- only young Vesey himself and those few solidly inside his inner circle truly know what is motivating him here and what things will matter most to him when he meets with the suitors today and tomorrow. We may or may not find out the truth once the final decision is made, probably no earlier than Friday depending on how loose lips are around the camp.
Many are no doubt ready for it all to be over so we can move on to the next thing (World Cup of Hockey, anyone?), none more than Vesey and his family.
For the one NHL club that will gain a valuable asset and one who has shown the kind of promise to make this pursuit worthwhile, that relief should be more than palpable. Sure- there is no guarantee that Vesey will be the NHL performer many believe he can, but if you’ve been paying attention to his profound growth over the past several seasons, you know better than to bet against him.