Big trouble

Two games, two goals for and 10 goals against.

Malcolm Subban was chased Tuesday against Minnesota in a 5-0 home drubbing, and Zane McIntyre’s first career NHL start began with promise Wednesday at Madison Square Garden where the B’s took a 2-0 lead on goals from David Pastrnak and Austin Czarnik (his first in the NHL), but were undone by another putrid second period and allowed five unanswered to drop to 3-4 overall.

We knew the Bruins were going to have ups and downs, but to have lost both of Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin…they’re in it deep because neither one of Subban nor McIntyre appears to be prepared to carry the B’s through their current injury woes. Khudobin is on the shelf for several weeks, but the B’s have been completely silent on Rask’s status…that could mean he’s close or it might be the worst kind of news- any long-term injury to the veteran netminder and former Vezina Trophy winner and the Bruins are screwed. Let’s be clear- last night’s loss was not McIntyre’s fault. Sure- he gave up a soft goal to Kevin Hayes (both Boston guys the Bruins courted- Hayes and Jimmy Vesey tallied for the Rangers- file it under “rub salt in the wounds” category) to tie it at two, but he was outstanding at other times in making saves that should have been goals. Unfortunately, the NHL is an unforgiving business and the final score, even though the offense went dormant and the defense left McIntyre in a vulnerable position time after time…that 5-2 end result is what we’re left with.

The defense is struggling, but not in the ways we anticipated. Torey Krug is still not himself since his offseason shoulder surgery. He’s a step behind the play and trying too hard from the looks of it. He’s too good a player to stay in a prolonged slump for much longer, but he’d be the first to tell you he’s played poorly from the beginning. Last night, he was a key contributor to New York’s first goal on the power play by Rick Nash, failing to clear the puck when it was on his stick and then being so far out of position so as to allow Nash two shots to get it in uncontested off to McIntyre’s left. Adam McQuaid, who missed the first five games to injury, is now back and to say he’s not been good is the understatement of the century right now. His lack of mobility has a spotlight on it right now and last night, he was exposed multiple times by long lead passes in the neutral zone. For all the praise we saw Brandon Carlo getting on Twitter last night- he simply wasn’t very good either. He at least battled hard and competed, but he wasn’t effective in several 1-on-1 situations and was burned several times when he pinched up and then found himself behind the play. Note- constructive criticism of a player’s performance is not “hate” but it’s typical of fans to scapegoat certain players while conveniently ignoring the mistakes of the ones they’re solidly behind. Carlo’s a heck of a young defender, but he doesn’t get a pass on his mistakes. Last night, he was part of the problem and not the solution, but to be absolutely truthful- Carlo had a lot of help on the blame line.

We could go on and on…David Backes is out with an elbow injury and his absence could be weeks vs. days…Matt Beleskey is a game hitter but is completely MIA offensively. Ryan Spooner can’t seem to get in gear- the wing thing isn’t working. David Krejci assisted on the Czarnik goal, but like Krug, he hasn’t been himself either after hip surgery. Jimmy Hayes…enough said.  And the beat goes on.

We don’t have the answers you seek. Dan Vladar, he of 35 saves for Providence last night vs. the Toronto Marlies in an OT loss, isn’t one. He’s simply not ready, even if there are promising signs to his development. To those who want the Bruins to go out and trade for a goalie- it’s not that simple. Guys like Ondrej Pavelec (Jets) and Mike Condon (Penguins) can be had, but with their GMs knowing teams like the Bruins and the several others with goalie issues like the L.A. Kings, are over the barrel, the cost is probably not worth it. The type of player that could be had via trade or waivers isn’t going to make enough of a difference to justify the cost. Had a fan on Twitter say yesterday that a guy like Pavelec could be had “for a song,” and perhaps that person is right, but we would submit that unless that song is future considerations or unless Rask is gone for the foreseeable future, what is the point of giving up a pick or prospect just to be stuck with three NHL goalies and a mediocre one in Pavelec when Boston’s 1-2 goalies return to health?

The goaltending position is not the issue here. Yes, Subban and McIntyre aren’t likely to be the answer in the short term, but with the defense and offense misfiring badly, that need not be the focus for change. GM Don Sweeney knew coming in that his D wasn’t very good and was hoping they would surprise and overachieve. That hasn’t happened, and the struggles are now magnified without the top net minding talents, so here we are.

With the schedule getting tougher, it sure looks like things are going to get worse before they get better, but for now- we’ll have to wait for the other shoe to drop on Rask. We’re seven games in, and you’d think the team is 0-7 as opposed to 3-4 but the woes are exacerbated by the knowledge that the defense was a problem area going in. The team was counting on Krug to be a key cog, and right now, he’s not delivered- that puts pressure on everyone else. Colin Miller looks great…at not accomplishing much. We just don’t think he has the vision and head to be anything more than a role player who can chip in with offense but who doesn’t process the game quickly enough to be an effective player in his own end. John-Michael Liles has not been good and looks like he’s 36 after giving the B’s a shot in the arm when he first arrived at the trade deadline last year. Zdeno Chara and Carlo have been the bright spots, but let’s be honest- it’s a mediocre group. We all know it…counting on Kevan Miller to stabilize the blue line play is a pipe dream, too- he’s just not that player. That means some kind of change has got to happen at some point, and the change must be meaningful, otherwise we’re just papering over what is holding the Bruins back.

That’s on management to figure out.

Rangers land second big Boston-area NCAA free agent in Vesey- the aftermath

The Jimmy Vesey saga ended Friday when word leaked out via Bob McKenzie that the North Reading native and Harvard graduate after winning the 2016 Hobey Baker Award, agreed to terms with the New York Rangers.

The decision, made some four-and-a-half months after Vesey declined to sign with the Nashville Predators, who owned his rights after drafting him 66th overall in 2012, was met with disappointment and disgust in some Boston circles, but shouldn’t be all that surprising given some of the warning signs that pointed to the 23-year-old leaning away from choosing his hometown Bruins as one of seven teams he formally met with this week.

Like Kevin Hayes two years ago, the B’s were in the running, but the player decided to play close to home but not with the Boston organization. Not surprisingly, Hayes himself, the younger of two hockey brothers who both played at Boston College, was instrumental in helping to convince Vesey to choose Broadway over Causeway.

For those familiar with this blog and typist, you know that I have had a personal connection with the Vesey family for more than five years, but throughout the process, I purposefully stayed away from trying to leverage that connection for information. In many respects, not really knowing which way Vesey was definitively leaning was refreshing, as it allowed for a shared experience with the vast majority of fans and non-insiders. When the word came down that it was the Rangers, I was hearing it for the first time, and I was also wrong- my own guess was that he would go with the New Jersey Devils because of a personal connection to Tom Fitzgerald, the Devils’ assistant GM. Shows you how much I know…

There are a lot of different views out there on the subject, so these notes are based on my own personal knowledge and insights gained from several conversations over the weekend with NHL insiders who have knowledge of the Vesey situation. This is why I didn’t rush to post something on it Friday or Saturday, as I wanted to get my ducks in a row first. But truth in lending: take my observations with a grain of salt. There is a personal element to it so I am not completely free of bias in all of this, nor do I pass myself off as completely objective here. I am writing an opinion piece, so you have the choice to agree or disagree with any or all of the points made.

  1. My gut feeling is that the Bruins lost their real shot at Vesey five years ago, when they drafted Norwegian goalie Lars Volden in the sixth round. In doing that, they snubbed the Belmont Hill star who had been told by someone in the organization that they liked him and were going to take him. That’s the tragedy in all of this from Boston’s perspective- they *knew* in 2011 that he had some big time potential and recognized it, but at the draft table in St. Paul, they went with someone else and it cost them what could have been a huge success story for their scouting staff. This kind of stuff happens all the time, but when you look at the attention Vesey has received (much of it earned), it’s something the B’s have been kicking themselves over. There is no doubt that had Boston drafted Vesey, he would not have pursued free agency in the manner he did and none of this would have been necessary. That snub motivated Vesey to destroy the EJHL in 2011-12, smashing all major offensive league records, but even then- the B’s could have spent a first-round choice on him over Malcolm Subban, especially since they didn’t have a second-rounder and knew deep down he wouldn’t be there in the late third. In effect, the B’s chose two goaltenders over Vesey- one is a complete washout and the other has yet to deliver on significant promise. It goes to show that scouting future NHL players is more of an art than a science, and projecting stars between the pipes is even more difficult. The B’s didn’t do what they allegedly said they would, and you have to know that Vesey didn’t forget it. When you add in all of the other factors that went into his decision, it’s not surprising. Boston did it to themselves- they had two legitimate shots at really showing Vesey that they wanted him, but didn’t take them. That left the Bruins in the position to ask for him to choose them this week, and all he did was return the favor.
  2. Give Rangers GM Jeff Gorton and his staff credit- they put together a compelling pitch, leveraging New York’s natural draw as a big market destination and myriad celebrities and sports figures associated with the Big Apple to put the finishing touches on a successful pitch. It’s easy to hate the Rangers as a natural extension of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and given Gorton’s history with the B’s, you know he enjoyed sticking it to Boston on this one, just as was the case with Hayes two years ago. Former Hobey Baker winner and Stanley Cup champion Chris Drury captained the Rangers and is the team,’s developmental guru- he had a major hand in convincing Vesey to sign on in Broadway, and don’t underestimate the lure that someone with Drury’s cachet brings to the process. In the end, there can only be one destination for a player’s services, and everything counts (not necessarily in large amounts as Depeche Mode once sang). While Vesey had close friends like Matt Grzelcyk, Ryan Fitzgerald and Harvard teammate Ryan Donato in the Boston organization, none of them have ever played a professional game with the B’s. Kevin Hayes, on the other hand, is the only close friend of Vesey’s in the NHL- he was able to identify with the signing process, but even more important- Hayes could tell Vesey firsthand what he was in for if he signed with New York. The other NHL teams in the running all brought out some of their biggest stars to try and sway Vesey, but none of them had the powerful personal connection Hayes does…that was big. Game, set and match. Remember- Boston is in some good company- the NHL’s modern dynasty Chicago Blackhawks and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins were also told “thanks but no thanks” by Vesey. The Rangers might seem like an odd choice to some, but for him, the team was the best fit. Now, time will tell how well he plays there and if he regrets that choice in the long run.
  3. In talking to one key insider, it was pointed out that Vesey has a large family and everyone is in the Boston area. It’s not just about Vesey taking heat during the inevitable times when he might not play as well as he’s capable of or like the human he is, goes into a slump. You have to take into account the effect that the media and fan negativity will have on Vesey’s immediate and extended families. It’s easy to dismiss that when you’re sitting behind a keyboard and have no concept of what it’s like to have your every move scrutinized and thinking about the possibility of rude, socially-stunted strangers accosting you in public to demand to know why your son, brother, nephew or cousin isn’t living up to the lofty expectations the modern information age created. It might sound like a cop out, and I’m sure there is an element of people that will scoff at the notion no matter what. That’s fine- I’m not trying to reach them, but the more fair-minded of those in hockey fandom will get it. “We know everyone,” came a quote via text yesterday. “And in the offseason (Jimmy) can come home and get away from it.” If he had signed in Boston, there would be no escape from the scrutiny of his profession. By going to the Rangers, he can go home to Boston in the summer months and decompress rather than stay in  what could be a crucible of discontent if the B’s fortunes don’t improve. That’s a lot to put on someone’s shoulders, even if there is a case to be made that by embracing the challenge, Vesey truly could have made himself into a legitimate Boston star. It was probably not meant to be, and that’s okay.
  4. It’s unfortunate that there is an element of sour grapes already taking hold and a segment of fans rejected by Vesey are already bringing out the sharp knives. It’s predictable. And lame. Look, the biggest mistake us “mortals” make is in assuming that because we would kill for a chance to play professional hockey for our favorite teams, everyone else should think the way we do. Observations 1 and 3 have already laid out why Boston was not the obvious choice for him, and to be honest- the B’s should be glad they were even in the final running. A more petulant, immature person would have stuck it to them and made a public spectacle of that rejection. Vesey is not that guy, and I think he showed the team respect by giving them a chance. Some might say he “used” them, but I would argue he leveraged every team in the running to determine his final landing spot.That might be what a Harvard degree teaches you, but that’s just me. It would be nice if people could show the same kind of maturity by respecting the decision and not seeking to point fingers or play the blame game. It might be human nature to lash out when things don’t go your way, but take a step back and evaluate your life and priorities. If you spent more time than you should have getting yourself worked up over the idea of Vesey skating in Boston and now feel hurt or betrayed after he chose the Rangers, then there are probably some important things in your life that you are neglecting. To put it another way (Ben Stiller style): It’s just a game, Focker.
  5. What was distasteful to everyone was the amount of attention the whole thing got for as long as it did, and the comparisons to Kevin Durant are valid. This is something Vesey will have to deal with and the best way to put it behind him is to simply go out and prove himself at the NHL level. At the same time, he probably invoked the old Shakespeare “Methinks thou doth protest too much,” when he commented about not enjoying the spotlight. A couple of points- I know Jimmy and believe him on that score: he’s not an attention-seeker. His handlers have more to do with that than anything, but as the player, he’s got to own that this became something that got out of hand. Second- there’s little doubt that deep down, he enjoyed being able to dictate the terms to NHL teams. Remember- all 30 clubs snubbed him in 2011 and 2012. Any one of them could have drafted him before Nashville in the 3rd round in his second year of eligibility. He went from being a kid who was hurt and disappointed at being skipped in his first year (who wouldn’t be?) to someone just about everyone would have gladly taken on their team. It’s human nature to enjoy an element of revenge when the tables are turned. I don’t blame him. Finally, the timing stunk- there just isn’t any hockey news to be had in mid-August and that fed the beast of the media circus surrounding Vesey, especially since he’s the reigning Hobey Baker recipient. Many of us might find the kind of hype surrounding him ridiculous, but this is the world we live in. Had Jonathan Drouin been able to leave Tampa Bay at midseason and become a free agent open to bidders, we likely would have seen the same exact thing. And those Canadian CHL-centric folks who wagged their fingers and tut-tutted at Vesey leveraging his right in the CBA would probably have made the same allowances for a player like Drouin that they seemed unwilling to extend for Vesey. That’s life, but again- you know who you are. Take a step back and be honest with yourself- every team seeks an edge, and Vesey is a good risk to take. We might not like the attention he got, but if it wasn’t him, it would likely be someone else. Besides, it made for an interesting story to follow at least. I’m just glad it’s over and we can now focus on the next big things: the World Cup of Hockey and the start of the new NHL season.

The onus is now on Vesey to go out and prove himself at the NHL level. There will be many out there rooting for him to fail, but he’s done a nice job of silencing the critics so far. Playing for the Rangers will be business as usual for him, and if the past is any indication, he’ll likely build more fans and supporters than detractors.

***

So, where do the Bruins go from here?

They accepted risk in waiting to see what happened with Vesey because by bringing him into the fold, they would have built a bigger war chest with which to make a trade for much-needed defensive help.

That ship has now sailed for Don Sweeney, so he needs to reset and figure out how he can address a very mediocre defensive group (and that’s being charitable at this point). He’s talked about the difficulty of finding the right players in a constricted market where skilled two-way defensemen are at a premium, but as the GM, the fans aren’t interested in that kind of reasoning. They expect action, and so it will be interesting to see what he and the team does between now and the start of rookie camp in about 30 days or before opening night in October.

The Bruins have some impressive young defenders coming down the pipeline via recent drafts, but those kids aren’t realistic options to help the 2016-17 NHL roster, so something has to give. Sweeney needs to find a way to close some deals and get some wins under his belt. Here’s guessing that he might re-open the lines of communication with St. Louis or Anaheim to look at Kevin Shattenkirk or Cam Fowler. 29-year-old free agent Kris Russell has not yet been signed (boy, is THAT ever telling!) and at this point, you have to think that someone will land him, especially if the right money makes his shortcomings easier to swallow. But how much of an upgrade is he on a team like the Bruins? Again, it will come down to contract term and AAV, but that he’s still sitting out and available in mid-August is interesting.

Yes, it would have been easier for Sweeney and staff to make a deal with Vesey on board to free up other assets to be moved, but Boston also has to play the longer game with Brad Marchand headed to unrestricted free agency in July 2017 if the B’s don’t extend him. And let’s face it- they can’t afford *not* to extend him unless they work an unreal trade that the majority of fans can get behind. To lose Marchand in the wake of so many other grievances fans have about the team is as unpleasant an outcome as you can find right now.

The major priority is to improve the defense. You can’t “fix” this group, but Sweeney can build a more sturdier unit than what we saw last season with one move. When you look at the promise of players like Charlie McAvoy and perhaps Brandon Carlo or Rob O’Gara plus others in the next 1-3 years, the defense will improve. However, the status quo in 2016-17 is simply not going to work. Sweeney has to find a way to identify and acquire a bridge player or two.

It won’t be easy, but if it were, then anyone off the street could manage an NHL team to a Stanley Cup championship.

 

Vesey officially on the open market- let the free agent Kabuki dance begin

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.

The undrafted free agents: Noel Acciari

The Boston Bruins undrafted free agents series rolls on with a closer look at Rhode Islander Noel Acciari. He’s a personal fave but I can’t really claim it because I had a chance to sing his praises publicly but didn’t. More on that later, but read on…

No(el) sure thing: Acciari

Noel Acciari was no sure thing.

And after the Boston Bruins signed him in June of 2015, some would say that he still isn’t, even with a promising NHL debut under his belt.

The former captain at Bishop Hendricken, Kent School and Providence College would probably be the first to tell you that even though he played 19 NHL games with the B’s in March and early April to close out a highly disappointing 2015-16 campaign, he has not yet arrived in the big show. However, when you consider the many obstacles that Acciari climbed from his minor hockey days as a Johnston, R.I. native who played with fellow NHLer Kevin Hayes on the South Shore Kings, reaching the highest level in his rookie pro season was a pretty special accomplishment.

The early returns are encouraging, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising if you go back and look at Acciari’s track record. Although he hasn’t ever truly projected as a major league scoring presence, the key cog in the Providence College Friars’ 2015 national championship machine has always brought tenacity, smarts and an ability to elevate his play in key situations.

He showed some of that panache in Boston, when he immediately found a way to make an impact by establishing effective pressure on the puck carrier and finishing his checks at every opportunity. Acciari reads and reacts to the play well and excels when play is in the defensive and neutral zones because of his quickness and anticipation.

“I think Noel is doing a great job in our D-zone as far as really being reliable, closing quickly,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien told the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa back in March. “On the offensive side, those other two guys (Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly) are skating and creating some opportunities there, so I think we’ve got a good combination so far.”

Acciari won’t just walk in and grab the fourth-line center job in Boston, but there aren’t many players better positioned to go out and earn it coming out of training camp and exhibition play than the 24-year-old is. After all, he’s no stranger to hard work and has seen his share of setbacks, so at this stage, having already achieved his dream of playing in the NHL has provided him with the proper grounding to go out and carve a niche for himself.

Growing up in the Ocean State, Acciari bounced between top hockey programs in Massachusetts (SSK) and Connecticut (Kent) to round out his development as a Rhode Island product. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for him, though. Never possessing an abundance of size or standout skill, Acciari often had to bring an off-the-charts work ethic and desire to the ice, along with a physical style. Coaches and scouts have always noted that he is the classic forward who plays “bigger than his size” and much of that comes from his natural head and heart.

Veteran Providence Journal assistant sports editor/hockey scribe Mark Divver probably has the best handle on Acciari of anyone in print (he’s watched him for years), and last March, he wrote the following:

If Acciari hadn’t missed a month after fracturing his jaw when he was hit by a slap shot on Dec. 4 — he expects to shed the protective guard on his helmet after the weekend — he might have been recalled sooner. His play in Providence has improved steadily from the start of the season.

Known for his hitting, Acciari said postgame that lining up NHLers is harder than hitting AHL or college players.

 “Every guy out here is very shifty. I can’t just throw my body — then I’ll be out of position. It has to be timed pretty perfectly. I’ll definitely throw my body around when I can. Hopefully, I’ll get some turnovers with that,’’ he said.

“For me, it’s just when I get my chance, be hard to play against. Throw my body around. Get to the net when I can,’’ he said.

Academics also posed a challenge for Acciari as he progressed up through the ranks. Several schools he was interested in were out of reach, and even when he arrived to the Friars, he had to sit out his first year for classroom-related reasons.

Matt Metcalf, writing in the Johnston Sunrise, told of Acciari returning to Bishop Hendricken to talk to student athletes about his hockey journey, and the story took an interesting turn when chronicling his final two years of high school, as he prepared to transition from prep hockey to the NCAA:

Providence, too, was a bit hesitant to take him in because of grades, but Acciari worked hard in his final stages at Kent to prove to the Friars that he could handle the academic load in addition to playing hockey.

Ultimately, Providence and its coaching staff believed in him and Acciari enrolled at PC for his freshman year.

But that freshman season couldn’t have gone any worse. Acciari found himself academically ineligible. Not only could he not play the whole season, but he couldn’t practice or work out with the team either.

“It was the worst feeling in the world,” Acciari said of that freshman year. “There’s nothing worse than seeing your friends playing while you’re just sitting around waiting.”

But Acciari took that time to work harder than he’s ever worked – not only in the classroom, but on his own in the weight room.

And by the time the following winter rolled around, he became an integral part of the team, playing in 33 games and posting 11 points.

However, none of that would’ve happened without working hard in the classroom. Acciari wanted the kids to know that it doesn’t matter how good of an athlete you are because, if you don’t perform well in the classroom, you won’t even get a chance to perform on the field or on the ice.

“I’m glad I could come back to talk to these guys,” Acciari said. “Just to know that I was in their shoes just five or six years ago, I wanted to get the message across that it’s not just all athletics, it’s academics. I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today with just hockey, I needed academics too. I wanted to get that across – that academics is a big part in getting to where you need to be in life.”

Some things in life come more readily to some than others, and in Acciari’s case, he found success in the classroom at PC, earning enough credits to graduate with a marketing degree in the spring of 2015. Even though he had a year of college hockey eligibility left by virtue of redshirting that freshman year of 2011-12, winning a national title and even more- pulling down a bachelor’s in the process- made the decision to sign with the Bruins that much easier.

Once again- credit Boston scouts like Ryan Nadeau, Scott Fitzgerald and ultimately- GM Don Sweeney, who made the final decision on offering a two-year deal to the PC captain- for finding another undrafted gem in Acciari.

He’s not going to put up a great deal of offense at the NHL level, but he’s a proven winner. With the wheels, physicality, faceoff prowess and character/poise to get you big time points when the game is on the line, Acciari is a strong bet to establish himself as Boston’s fourth-line pivot this season and beyond.

Here’s one last personal perspective to share on No. 55 for the Bruins:

Back in March of 2011, while watching the NEPSIHA Elite 8 prep tourney, Acciari far outshined other bigger “sexier” names on the Lions roster, such as manchild D Mike McKee (not drafted) and 2012 NY Rangers second-rounder Boo Nieves.

I kept looking at Acciari in those playoff games (his team lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to Rob O’Gara’s Milton Mustangs in the championship contest) and asking myself what was I missing? He was not overly big, but so physical- and it was an effective physicality. He demonstrated superior closing speed and instincts- he would often read and react so quickly that the puck carrier was on his butt and sans biscuit before he could even process what had hit him (Acciari). He wasn’t getting whistled for his play, either. Even then, he played the game hard, but clean. When it came time to key goals, he had a knack for scoring them or making the important plays to set them up.

I lacked the courage of my convictions to stand up for Acciari and take the time to write about him on my Bruins 2011 Draft Watch blog (to my eternal shame). The fact is- after watching Acciari in prep and since, there was nothing I was missing- he’s a player. The Bruins stand to benefit from his contributions provided he’s used in the right bottom-six role and more is not expected of him than he is suited for.

Acciari reinforces the importance of recognizing that there is always something new you can learn in the business of evaluating hockey talent. Sometimes, the gut feeling is the right one. Four years after watching him rock the competition as a prep but not having the guts the float his name out there as having legitimate pro potential, even as a lower-end checking player, it just goes to show that you don’t have to be a highly-touted teen who lands early in the first round to be an NHL player.

Not every prospect projects to be a top-end guy, but to build winning teams, you need players like him. He’s got a nice NCAA championship ring in the collection- perhaps some more hardware and jewelry could be in Acciari’s future.

 

Noel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away frontNoel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away back

Jimmy Vesey update- CSNNE video

Grapes

There is much speculation about Jimmy Vesey and where he will end up, even after the Buffalo Sabres traded for his rights last month.

Joe Haggerty of CSNNE had a 9-minute interview with Vesey that does a nice job of laying everything out.

http://www.csnne.com/video/vesey-1-1-short-list-teams-still-considering

After the interview, here’s what we do know:

1. Buffalo is the only team that can negotiate with Vesey prior to August 15 and they’ve made their pitch. According to Vesey- the Sabres have told him they don’t want to turn it into a “circus” so he is saying that he’ll decline to sign for now, get to free agency, and then perhaps end up with Buffalo after all is said and done. The key for Tim Murray and Co. will be to hold off the urge to put any more pressure on him- back off, and let him decide when the time comes.

2. “Boston is definitely on my list of teams to talk to…” in Vesey’s own words. We’ve known this for a long time, so a lot of it will depend on the various pitches and whatever he feels is the best fit.

3. He’s always been a Joe Thornton fan…wears No. 19 in the old Boston captain’s honor, but he cited Torey Krug as a current Bruin he knows and respects. The two played on Team USA a year ago in the 2015 Men’s IIHF World Championship. Much has been made of Vesey’s connection to Eichel (he was also on that USA squad), but if the B’s can leverage Krug in this, it won’t hurt.

4. Good team vs. bad team is just one factor, but “getting a feel” for the GM and coach on a personal level is also something important to Vesey.

It’s a good interview and worth watching. Joe is my friend- I have to hand it to him on this one. He did a nice job of scoring the time, and if you read between the lines, the Bruins are very much in the mix for Vesey, but he’s a Buffalo Sabre until August 15 rolls around and he isn’t. Don’t count out New York teams in play for him as Kevin Hayes ended up with the NY Rangers two summers ago, or even the Chicago Blackhawks- as GM (and Veep) Stan Bowman himself went to Foxboro last week to watch him play in the summer league with Jack Eichel.

Okay- I’ll say it: Vesey would be a tremendous get for the Bruins.

Yes, their defense has yet to be meaningfully addressed, though the team has signed all three of their RFAs- Krug (4 years); Colin Miller (2 years- $1M AAV) and Joe Morrow (1 year- $800k) extensions were announced yesterday. Both of those team-friendly deals will help Don Sweeney land another veteran option, and make no mistake- the team could use the upgrade. We’re still only in mid-July here, but if we get close to the start of camp with no changes on the blue line, then we’re going to have something to talk about.

But back to Vesey- I cannot stress this enough: he’s a game-changer for Boston. He has been an elite college hockey player for the past two seasons, and he won a gold medal for Team USA at the World Jr. Championship in 2013. He’s just a winner, and Vesey’s presence is like “free chicken” for Sweeney- he can then perhaps use another forward to add to a war chest to be leveraged in a meaningful trade for help on defense.

Take my comments with a grain of salt- as I said, I’ve known Vesey and his family for years. I know how much he cares about the game, and some of the comments about him declining to sign with Nashville are unfair and wrong. We deal with the system we have, not the one we wish we did, so when it comes to the CBA, his grabbing an opportunity that is clearly in place is part of what makes America what it is. It’s a great thing to have the freedom of choice, and while I can understand the disappointment Nashville and Predators fans might feel, what he did was well within bounds. Very few young players in hockey these days get to choose their own destination, and by staying in school, Vesey put himself at risk by not taking the money Nashville offered him if something had happened to him in his final year at Harvard. This kind of thing cuts both ways, and maybe just maybe- the team pushed a little too hard. We always talk about how teams interview and audition players to make sure *they* are okay with investing millions in a young player to not only perform on the ice but represent their organization. Perhaps in this case- Vesey was auditioning Nashville, and they came up short. We may never know.

As for the Predators, they moved on when they flipped his rights to Buffalo for a pick in the same round that they drafted Vesey in four years earlier, so while they did invest time and resources in him, what he’s doing is completely acceptable under the framework of the rules and system.

No matter who Vesey ends up with, I’ll say the same thing. I’m happy for Jimmy- the Bruins should have drafted him in 2011 when they had a chance, but by virtue of what he said in the CSNNE interview, Boston is still very much in play, even if other NHL teams never were seriously in the game.  One day, there will be another hot shot free agent out there and Boston won’t be anywhere on his list- that’s why the B’s need to close here.

Don’t cry for him Music City, the truth is- he never loved you. (Well, maybe he did, but I couldn’t resist going all Evita here)

That’s the way these things go in professional sports, but there’s a reason that Vesey continues to be a hot topic in hockey circles- he’s a hell of a player, and for someone who got in on the ground floor with him back when his development was still a work in progress, none of this is all that surprising. Boston fans would do well to keep an open mind and don’t underestimate a team like Chicago- they’re lurking in the weeds here- who could swoop in and knock Vesey off his feet with the lure of playing time, a nice situation and the most attractive thing of all to any competitive hockey player: a legit shot at winning the Stanley Cup…sooner, rather than later.

My gut still tells me that if Boston wants him badly enough- the Bruins have as good a shot as any club to emerge winners in the Vesey sweeps a month from now. I’d bet that they’ve learned from their dealings with the younger Hayes brother in 2014 and will pull out the stops to get Vesey to commit and stay home- play for the team he said himself he always dreamed of being a part of. I can only guess that’s part of why he was so stung in 2011 when he was passed over, because he thought his hometown Bruins were going to take a flyer on him. Woulda-coulda-shoulda, but think about how different that draft would have been if they had come away with Vesey and Krug- two players they had very serious discussions about selecting that year.

They should have at least grabbed Vesey…because none of this would be going on if they had. Of course- he’s probably glad they did, because he now has a degree from Harvard and a wealth of experiences in his young life that few 23 year olds among his peers can relate to. We don’t know if he will be the NHL star and top-6 LW with 35-goal, 80-point upside I think he can be, but if you add him to Charlie McAvoy and Trent Frederic, all of the sudden, that becomes a hell of a 1st-round draft haul for the Bruins, and starts to explain why they went for Frederic when you stir the skill guy in Vesey into the mix.

Go get him, Boston- he’s waited this long to become an unrestricted free agent, so do what it takes. Landing Vesey opens up other opportunities to address holes on the roster and the GM undoubtedly knows that.

***

Day 2 of Bruins development camp happened in Wilmington Wednesday. Mike Loftus of the Patriot-Ledger grabbed a quick video on D Ryan Lindgren, who missed the first day’s activities but is now on board:

http://videos.patriotledger.com/patriotledger/u24z8z

 

 

Danton Heinen leaves Denver U, signs 3-year ELC

Heinen

As reported here about a month ago, forward Danton Heinen has given up his remaining two years of NCAA eligibility to sign a three-year entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins after they drafted him in the fourth round in 2014.

Several sources told the Scouting Post that Heinen would not be going back school for his junior season back on March 12, citing an eagerness for him to get started on a pro career. He had reportedly told several of his teammates that he would not be back, and so it was just a matter of Boston waiting for his season to end. With the recent news of 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey declining to sign with the Nashville Predators, it’s a reasonable assumption that if Boston was entertaining the thoughts of talking Heinen into remaining an amateur for one more season, they were all about bringing Heinen into their organization immediately.

The ability for college players to choose their own destinations after four years and choices by Kevin Hayes and now Vesey to not sign with the teams that drafted them means that NHL clubs will not hesitate to bring players out of the NCAA sooner now, and if a kid is not altogether thrilled to be a part of that organization, don’t be surprised to see their advisors (read: player agents) leverage tools like burning a year off the ELC in order to get them to come out on the NHL team’s timeline. The Winnipeg Jets also signed Kyle Connor yesterday after just one year at Michigan and taking the hockey world by storm. Connor is the lightning rod that Bruins fans are using to criticize Boston’s first round choices in 2015. It looks like we’ll soon find out how much the team missed out on by passing on the USHL and NCAA’s top scorer in consecutive seasons. Connor’s signing is one more reminder that the old days of guys spending four years in school is getting increasingly rare (though the B’s duo of college defenders- Rob O’Gara and Matt Grzelcyk– did just that)

Getting back to Heinen- the 20-year-old British Columbia native had a slow offensive start to the season, but erupted over the second half, tallying about two points per game to lead the Pioneers to the Frozen Four before ultimately coming up short against the eventual 2016 champion University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks (PC or not they’ll always be the Fighting Sioux to me).

In two NCAA seasons in the Rocky Mountains, Heinen tallied 36 goals and 93 points in just 81 games. Playing on the Pacific Rim line or “Pac Rim” this season from January on, Heinen simply caught fire. After being at well under a point-per-game just as the calendar switched to 2016, he teamed up with fellow left coasters Dylan Gambrell (eligible for 2016 draft) and Trevor Moore (could leave school as a free agent or return- reportedly weighing his options right now) to finish atop the Pioneers with 20 goals and 48 points, adding to his 16 goals and 45 points from a season ago.

PacRimLine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heinen is about 6-foot-1 and a solid 185 pounds. As a 1995-born player he was passed over in 2013 because he was small and extremely light, but he’s hit an impressive growth spurt since and dedicated himself in the weight room, adding strength and mass to his frame.

A good skater, what makes Heinen arguably Boston’s top prospect along with Zach Senyshyn for the offensive potential both possess, is that he has exceptional vision and hockey sense, to go with one sick set of mitts. He was a center in junior but has been developed as a winger in college under head coach Jim Montgomery, first playing on the left side as a freshman before shifting over to the right (his off-wing) and settling in with the Pac Rim unit. He uses his high IQ to anticipate/read/react and after hitting a lot of posts and not getting much in the way of puck luck in the early going, his talent took over as he racked up the points down the stretch. He’s heavy on the puck and has the intelligence to take on the various responsibilities required of him in Boston’s system.

Heinen is not a flashy or dynamic player who is going to wow you by exploding to top speed in a few strides and putting defenses into near-constant back pedal mode, but what he will do is slow down the play or speed it up depending on the situation. When he gets down below the circles and in between the hashmarks, he’s deadly- either hounding the puck and hitting linemates with accurate passes to set up quality chances or burying goals with a quick release and little hesitation to shoot the puck when the lane is open for him to do so.

Like many young players these days- I caution fans not to jump squarely on the hype train just yet. Heinen is good enough of a player to challenge for NHL duty right away next fall, but that doesn’t mean that the right answer is that he will play in Boston. Frank Vatrano showed that a rookie pro with the right blend of skill and want to can make it with the big club, but we have an extended offseason ahead of us. Before we start projecting what line he’ll be on, how many goals/points he’ll score and whether he should be paired with Vesey (who as of right now until Aug. 15 or unless his rights are traded between now and then is still property of the Predators), let’s take a moment to see how he looks in Providence first. He’s there this week on at ATO (amateur tryout) and his 3-year contract won’t kick in until 2016-17. Let’s see how he looks in his first taste of pro hockey, and then keep in mind that there will be some personnel changes between now and when training camp opens up in mid-September.

I know, I know- what fun is being patient when we can entertain ourselves with endless speculation and line permutations?

For now, Heinen being in the fold is an intriguing step. He’s unproven, but the potential is higher than average and he was a super find by the Boston scouts. For more on him, check out my blog post from before the season began titled “The Curious Case of Danton Heinen” and I walk you down the path of how, as a little known commodity in the BCHL that more than a few teams were quietly tracking, the Bruins appear to have struck gold.

Time will tell…and we won’t know how successful the find was for a little while yet.

Source: O’Gara to sign with Bruins; Jimmy Vesey opts not to sign with Predators

cropped-ogara-national-champ.jpg

Rob O’Gara in 2013 after Yale won the NCAA championship (Photo courtesy of Rob O’Gara)

It was an interesting Monday, as the Scouting Post blog got wind that Boston Bruins prospect  and defenseman Rob O’Gara is expected to sign with the team this week. He will make it official by putting pen to paper after concluding his NCAA career with Yale University in a 3-2 OT loss to the University of Massachusetts- Lowell on Saturday night.

O’Gara signing with the B’s is the next step in a six-year journey that began in the fall of 2010 when the Long Island native left home to play prep hockey in Massachusetts for the Milton Academy Mustangs (ISL). He helped lead his team to the 2011 New England Prep Stuart-Corkery Elite 8 championship as a big, mobile and smart shutdown defender. He ended up being the final pick of the fifth round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the hometown Bruins, who obviously took note of him while he played in their backyard. Since then, he played one more year of prep at Milton (he was the captain in 2011-12), and then spent the previous four seasons with Yale, a key member of the Elis 2013 NCAA title team as a freshman.

While O’Gara has not officially signed with Boston yet, a source close to the situation said that family advisor Matt Keator is working with the team and it is expected to get done soon. Whether he will go to the AHL to finish out the season with Providence or remain in school to close out the semester and start fresh in the fall of 2016 with his first pro training camp (as Brian Ferlin did two springs ago) remains to be seen and is part of the details that are being worked.

It was a disappointing statistical season for O’Gara, but to simply look at the numbers would be to ignore the tremendous amount of playing time he received and how effective he was in myriad situations for Yale.   They were one of the top defensive teams in the nation and needed to be, because offense was an adventure from night to night. O’Gara was named the 2015 ECAC defensive defenseman of the year and is a fluid, intelligent rearguard who can move the puck to the right spots on the ice and while isn’t an overly aggressive hitter, uses his size and reach to very good effect. He and Brandon Carlo could become a sort of “twin towers” combination if you will- two tall (O’Gara is 6-4, Carlo 6-5), agile/mobile and very tough to beat players in their own end.

It’s too early to project where O’Gara will fit in and whether he could earn minutes with the big club next season or might need to spend at least a year or more in the AHL further developing his already mature game. However, he’s a guy who has literally grown up in the Bruins organization, as he turned 18 on the day he reported to Wilmington for his very first Boston development camp in 2011 and has progressed impressively each year since. He’s probably not one of those higher-end two-way threats that earn the distinction of being a top NHL defenseman, but O’Gara could eventually become a solid top-four, minute-munching, shutdown and character player that you win with. To get him at the end of round five is fine value in itself. His college coach, Keith Allain, called him the “best defenseman in college hockey,” last week. Sure, there’s bias there, but Allain knows defensemen and he’s probably not too far off the mark in the purest sense of the word.

Conversely, the Nashville Predators did not get the same kind of good news B’s fans can smile at today.

Earlier this evening, Hall of Fame hockey reporter and analyst Bob McKenzie tweeted that Jimmy Vesey’s representatives had informed GM David Poile and the Nashville Predators that he would not negotiate an entry-level contract and would instead elect to pursue free agency and control his own destination as of August 15.

For the Predators and their fans, this is a tough blow. Vesey was originally passed over in 2011 coming out of prep hockey with Belmont Hill despite a productive season. He was heavily recruited by USHL teams but opted to stay close to home and his family in Massachusetts, playing for Scott Harlow and the South Shore Kings in the final season of the EJHL before the league morphed into the USPHL. In 2011-12, Vesey engaged in a scorched earth campaign to terrorize opponents, shattering the EJHL’s single season scoring records with 48 goals and 91 points in 45 games. He was the New England Hockey Journal’s top-ranked player coming out of New England for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, but wasn’t picked until the third round (66th overall) and after Brian Hart and Sam Kurker both went in the second round. He played with speed, skill and a deadly scoring attitude. Vesey played with a giant chip on his shoulder and it even seemed that all year he was giving one giant middle finger to all 30 NHL teams that passed on him the previous June in St. Paul. In Pittsburgh a year later, Nashville was the first to step up and say “We believe in you”- and most figured that he would eventually make his way to Music City.

But that was before he emerged as one of college hockey’s most dominant players. It didn’t happen right away, but once it did…

Vesey went on to win a gold medal in 2013 with Team USA at the World Jr. Championship tourney despite modest freshman year numbers at Harvard- 11 goals and 18 points in 27 games. He exploded as a junior, scoring 32 goals in 37 NCAA games and finishing as runner-up to fellow Bay Stater Jack Eichel for the 2015 Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey’s top player. Nashville had seen enough and wanted him to come out and sign then, but Vesey opted to remain in school and return as the Crimson’s captain for his senior year. This season, the goals weren’t as prolific and he carried a heavy burden of getting much of the defensive attention on him whenever Harvard played.

Vesey also got asked the question a lot about whether he would sign with the team that owned his rights or leverage the rare right that few aspiring pro hockey players have to choose their own NHL destination. That had to weigh on the kid, whose real desire was trying to get back to the NCAA and help Harvard win a title for the first time since his head coach, Ted Donato, was a sophomore on the team in 1989.

This column’s purpose is not to debate or pick apart the provision in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that allows college seniors to pass up all the money on the table that a team owning their rights offers and choose to sign somewhere else. We saw it last year with Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly. We saw it in August 2014 with Boston College’s Kevin Hayes, who could have won a Stanley Cup as a rookie had he signed with the team that drafted him- the Chicago Blackhawks. He instead went to the NY Rangers. Before that, it was Justin Schultz and Blake Wheeler,who in 2008 originally leveraged the loophole to be a free agent if not signed four full years after being drafted. Of course- you all know who Wheeler signed with after being the fifth overall selection of the (then) Phoenix Coyotes.

Vesey is the latest high-profile player to go the free agency route, and per the NHL’s CBA, he’s well within his rights to do it. This is America (and Canada), after all. If you believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then you ought not take issue with Vesey’s choice.

If nothing else, it’s going to give hockey people a lot to talk about in mid-August, but it’s no consolation to the Nashville Predators- Poile and assistant GM Paul Fenton but also the scouting staff and player development staff that invested heavily in Vesey: former CM defenseman (and 1994 first-rounder) Jeff Kealty, who is a Massachusetts guy. They’re all left holding the bag and get nothing- not even a compensatory pick, because unlike Hayes, Vesey was not a first-round selection, so there is no provision in the CBA to compensate a club that loses out on a high-profile prospect like him. The NHL should look at this. Vesey is perfectly within his right to pursue this action, but shouldn’t Nashville get some kind of return on their investment? Even if it is a mid-to-late pick?

The Tennessean’s Adam Vingan, and old press box buddy of mine when were were both covering the Washington Capitals circa 2009-12 (to this day, the title of his Caps blog “Kings of Leonsis” gets a chuckle out of me- he’s a gifted writer and hard worker) has more details on the story and is worth following on Twitter- not just for the Vesey stuff but for a good pulse on what is going on in Smash-ville.

Vingan’s Twitter feed indicates that Poile and company really believed that Vesey was going to sign…until informed today that he wasn’t. That’s the business of hockey and only Vesey and those closest to him know why he opted to pass on a pretty good situation in Nashville: the team is one of the hottest in hockey and was prepared to give him a top-9 spot coming right out of the disappointment of losing to Boston College Friday night in the first NCAA tourney game after losing out to Quinnipiac for the ECAC championship.

Here is part of the statement given by Poile to Nashville media during the second intermission of their game tonight (taken from @Adam Vingan via David Boclair of the Nashville Post @BoclairSports):

 

Vesey

So, after nearly four years in the organization, Nashville rolled the dice and came up snake eyes. Where will Vesey go is now the burning question.

The Toronto Maple Leafs make a whole lot of sense purely for the family reasons than many are away: both his dad (a Townie who starred at Merrimack College before becoming a part-time Blues and Bruins forward is now an area scout for the Leafs) and brother  Nolan, (drafted in 2014) are part of the TML organization. Beyond that, you have Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan running the front office and head coach Mike Babcock for credibility and the rebuild with some impressive foundational blocks already in place. The team cleared the decks of bad contracts to make a splash in free agency come July 1st and have the assets in place to maybe pull off a blockbuster trade to bring in some legitimate new blood to revitalize the sad sack Leafs, who might also get a kid named Auston Matthews in Buffalo come June. Would Toronto have coin left over to throw Vesey’s way come mid-August? You can bet dollars to (Tim Horton’s) doughnuts they will. It’s one of the few situations you could see a kid like Vesey looking at and making the tough call to say “No thanks” to a situation like Nashville.

I have little doubt it was a difficult decision.

So, let the recriminations begin…that is also the business of hockey. It isn’t fair, but that’s the way things go in life. It isn’t fair to the Predators, who will likely get criticized for not trading Vesey’s rights when they had a chance. It’s not that simple, but it’s bound to come out in some circles. It isn’t fair to Vesey, who will likely get criticized for not showing loyalty to the Predators organization, but he’s not the only one who’s followed this path and it’s doubtful he’ll be the last.

No team can talk to Vesey until August 15. Nashville could theoretically get him to change his mind, too- they have until then to do that. If not, then once their hold on him expires, he’s free to sign a deal with a new suitor. Will it be Toronto? Could he come home to Boston? Is there another team out there lying in the weeds waiting to swoop in and offer him max dollars and the lure of opportunity?

That’s what we’ll all have to wait to find out.

In the meantime, it appears that sticking with the team that picked him was good enough for O’Gara, and for that- the Bruins are grateful. However, unless or until the NHL can address the NCAA rules in the collective bargaining agreement and how player rights are handled at present, there will be a buyer beware tag associated with kids either drafted out of the college ranks or headed there.

You can’t fault some of them for taking advantage of the options available to them, but you can bet that no other team wants to be in Nashville’s shoes a year from now or two…or three. Here’s some more on the situation from TSN’s Frank Seravalli

The Bruins now have a pair of high-profile later collegiate picks that have stuck by their team in O’Gara (who admittedly has yet to make it official- will feel better once he signs on the dotted line) and Zane McIntyre, who gave up a year of eligibility to sign with Boston last summer. Slightly different circumstances, but because of when the team had drafted him (2010), he could have pursued free agency. His only decision was whether to sign with the Bruins (which he did) or stay in school, but like Nashville, the B’s could have looked on helplessly as he said “no thanks,” and pursued opportunities with a different Johnny-Come-Lately organization.

This is why relationships and player development is so important. That’s not to say Nashville didn’t invest that with Vesey- they did. But loyalty is a two-way street and at least in the case of O’Gara and McIntyre, they felt strongly enough about the time spent in the organization and the roots they had put down over the summers when they were able to work with the coaches, and then during the seasons when team officials visited them and in between, to stick with the team that brought them to the dance.

But not every story may turn out the same way in Boston, so let this serve perhaps as a cautionary tale going forward. It may also create a climate in which NCAA teams will pay the price through the law of unintended consequences, as NHL clubs might sign their kids away from those college teams earlier than ever to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

TSP put out on March 12 that Danton Heinen was going to turn pro after the season and I stand by that report (with multiple source input). Although the kid himself has said no decision has been made yet, and I respect that given his team is in the Frozen Four happening in a couple of weeks, all that’s left to do is for the ink to dry on his NHL contract. If the Bruins had any thoughts about not signing their 2014 fourth-rounder before, you can rest assured those doubts are gone now.

If only every decision were that simple.

Rob O'Gara 1010152

Rob O’Gara looks on during an on-ice session at the 2014 Boston Bruins development camp (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Notes from around the NHL on opening night

The NHL’s 2015-16 campaign officially opened on Wednesday night with the 2015 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks hosting the New York Rangers and raising their third big banner since 2010 after going 49 years between their previous title in 1961. The Chicago Cubs are hoping to capture some of that magic, and in case you forgot- the last time they won a World Series was 1908.

The Rangers-Hawks game was what hockey is about- it was a fast-paced game that saw the visitors take a 3-2 victory after a late Patrick Kane goal was waved off (due to the referee losing sight of the puck while behind net and blowing the whistle before Kane could poke it through Henrik Lundqvist’s pads). Hank was very good- surrendering a pair of goals to Chicago Euro young guns Artem Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen after his defense broke down on both occasions. Beyond that, he was his usual stellar self and at age 33, shows no signs of slowing.

Jonathan Toews is such a fine player. Granted- I finally landed him in an ESPN fantasy hockey league I participate in after that league did away with keepers for the first time in 4 years, but Toews is such a cerebral guy out there- less is more with him. On one play, he was hooked by Mats Zuccarello, but calmly pivoted and threaded a pass over to Teravainen, who got a good shot off and forced Lundqvist to make a key save. That play won’t show up in Toews’ stats, nor will it make the highlight reel, but stack enough of those up together over the course of the season and you’re going to win a lot more games than you lose.

I really like Kevin Hayes as an NHL player. His raw potential was so evident way back in 2009-10 when he was a star at Nobles prep, but we knew back then that he was going to require a lot of patience and seasoning. The B’s reportedly came close to getting him in the summer of 2014, but he opted for Broadway instead and watch for him to emerge as one of that team’s more consistent forwards in the next season or two. He and older brother Jimmy are different- Kevin is more of a finesse, skilled scorer who can beat you in a variety of ways, whereas Jimmy is more of a straight-ahead, north-south winger who generates his offense through hard work and parking his gigantic frame in front of the net where very few in the NHL have the size/strength to move him.

Hayes, who was drafted by the Blackhawks, used the system to his advantage to choose his destination and as mentioned last night, we could see a similar scenario play out with Harvard’s own Jimmy Vesey, who was snubbed in the 2011 draft, but picked up by Nashville in the third round a year later and will have the same option for free agency available to him after his senior season in Cambridge if he does not sign with the Predators. Just a guess, but I bet the folks in Smashville will work very hard to get the lethal scorer into the fold…I’ve spoken to Nashville scouting director Jeff Kealty (a Massachusetts guy  and former 1st round pick in 1994 out of CM back in the day) and it’s no secret that the team loves him (as did the Bruins except for the fact that they didn’t have a second-rounder in 2012 to use on Vesey).

Out West, the Kings took an early lead at home, jumping on the San Jose Sharks and former L.A. (and Boston for a few days) goalie Martin Jones when Nick Shore deflected a shot just 1:42 into the game. However, San Jose stormed back, including a wicked shot from Joe Thornton on a 2-on-1 when the entire building including Jonathan Quick figured he would pass it. That shot reminded me a lot of the 38-goal Jumbo Joe we saw in Boston during Mike Keenan’s one and only season behind the Bruins bench in 2000-01.

After that the rout was on and the Sharks closed out the Kings by a 4-1 score. Milan Lucic went after Logan Couture in the final frame after he took exception to a hit. This is the Lucic on-the-edge guy whose emotions don’t always work for the team…I didn’t have a problem with Lucic going after Couture as I do with the fact that in the grand scheme it was not that big of a deal and was just as easily something he could have taken a number on and then crushed Couture with a big but legal hit the next time they went into a corner together. All Couture did was turtle (and that’s not an insult to him- he’d be foolish to try and fight in that situation) Lucic once again looked like a bully and a bad guy, which many believe he is.

In any case- for those thinking that the Sharks are going to tank this season, this one game is reason for pause. They played well on the road against a fired-up Kings team that along with the Bruins and Blackhawks, has won every Stanley Cup for the last six years.

The Calgary Flames dropped their season opener to Vancouver. I didn’t watch the game live but will catch the replay today and see how Mr. Dougie Hamilton looked. I am intrigued to see if Sean Monahan can make that next big step in his development after a fine season a year ago.

All in all- it’s been a long offseason and it’s great to have games that count once again.

The Bruins open up their season tonight at home against the game and dangerous Winnipeg Jets, who are my pick to reach a Stanley Cup final series here in the not-too-distant future with the pieces they continue to stockpile. The Jets are a young team, but they’ve got a nice balance of skill, grit and character. These are not your daddy’s Atlanta Thrashers, that’s for sure!

The wait is over, Bruins fans- the 92nd season  begins tonight.