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

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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.

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

NHL 2015 rookie camps/player watch list- Western Conference

Back with part 2 of the rookie camp player watch list, going out West. As mentioned before- these are players I’m familiar with- either through scouting them or interviewing them in their respective draft years. I don’t claim to have a monopoly of knowledge, but share these observations a time when they are getting a chance to compete with and among their peers- before the veterans show up and camps formally begin next week.

Anaheim Ducks

Brandon Montour, D- Former UMass defender left after just one season but has live wheels and impressive puck moving ability. He was drafted in 2014 as a third-year draft eligible out of Waterloo of the USHL and may have been that league’s best d-man in 2013-14. He’s 21 and ready to handle the physical demands and rigors of pro hockey after just one season in the Hockey East.

Nick Ritchie, F- Massive power forward has bigger upside than his older brother Brett after being drafted out of the Peterborough Petes of the OHL in 2014. Tremendous core strength means he generates power few can match when he decides to drive the net and works up the speed to take the puck straight in. Gets some real torque on his shot and hides his release point well. Effort level and intensity comes and goes- if the light ever comes on for him he could be a force. People said the same things about Ryan Getzlaf back in 2003, after all.

Arizona Coyotes

Nick Merkley, F- What a gamer! Although undersized and lacking a top gear, he’s an elite passer and finds ways to generate offense as evidenced by his great WHL playoff and Memorial Cup run last spring. He was a steal for the Desert Dogs with the final pick of the opening round, a player who was projected to go anywhere from the around the top-15-20 picks but slid down to 30. To get Dylan Strome and Merkley in the same round and with Max Domi ready to take his game to the big show, Arizona is building some serious firepower up front.

Calgary Flames

Rasmus Andersson, D- Talented Swede was Calgary’s top selection (after trading three picks to Boston for Dougie Hamilton) in the second round, just after the B’s opted for Jeremy Lauzon, and he’s an interesting prospect. A superb power play presence and puck mover, he uses his vision and soft hands to distribute with the added time and space. His skating- especially the transitions and lateral movement- is an area that needs improvement, but he was a productive player in his first OHL season.

Jon Gillies, G- A Scouting Post favorite, he went out on top at Providence College, playing a huge role in his school’s first ever NCAA title last April and will likely spend the year with the Stockton Heat of the AHL. With his huge frame, he doesn’t allow much daylight in the net and he’s a competitive battler. Scouts have knocked him for not being an elite athlete, but when you look at his numbers- they don’t lie.

Chicago Blackhawks

Graham Knott, F- Excellent physical tools are brought into question when it comes to the hockey sense and overall competitiveness. If he develops a little more “want to”, Knott certainly has the talent to be an NHL regular and Chicago will have done it again by landing a quality forward without a top-round selection, but several NHL scouts questioned his ability to process and decisions at times when he was with Niagara of the OHL this past season.

Colorado Avalanche

Conner Bleackley, F- I liked the Red Deer Rebels captain as an option for the B’s in the 2014 draft’s first round, but Colorado grabbed him earlier (not that it would have mattered, as David Pastrnak was Boston’s guy all along). Scuttlebutt with scouts I spoke to at the 2015 NHL draft is that Bleackley was not ready to go for his first pro camp and his play suffered last season. This is a key opportunity for him to put a better foot forward and justify the team’s faith in him- he’s a leader so don’t count him out on that score.

Dallas Stars

Jason Dickinson, F- The player chosen by Dallas with the pick Jim Nill got from Boston in the 2013 trade deadline deal for Jaromir Jagr, Dickinson hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers in the OHL, but has been pretty consistent as a scorer over the past year. Knocks on him entering his NHL draft was a lack of intensity and a tendency to go long stretches at Guelph without doing much and then scoring in bunches. Felt he was a reach at the end of the 1st round, but there’s no doubt he has the skating and tools to justify that pick going forward.

Cole Ully, F- Undersized and underweight at 18, Ully has always had the speed and “want to” coming out of the rugged WHL with the Kamloops Blazers. He’s the anti-Dickinson if you will- a kid who has the skating and shot if not the more ideal pro size but has a non-stop motor and a knack for finding the net in key situations. He’s gotten stronger and added more mass to his light frame, but he’s always going to be challenged in the rougher areas of the ice, where his compete and grit will give him a chance to win puck battles. Speaking of battles, he’s not afraid to drop the gloves to defend teammates- he’s willing to earn respect the hard way.

Edmonton Oilers

Leon Draisaitl, F- In hindsight, Draisaitl wasn’t ready for prime time when he began the 2014-15 NHL season in Edmonton, but the experience has made him a much better player and he was in beast mode during the WHL playoffs with Kelowna. He’s the sturm to McDavid’s drang, and these two are going to give the Oilers a wicked 1-2 punch up the middle for years to come, giving the rest of the league much turmoil and emotional heartache to face as they mature into stars.

Connor McDavid, F- What more can you say about McDavid that has not been mentioned already? I’ll just share an observation of him from Sunrise on draft weekend. The day after going 1st overall, he was back in the building doing some kind of promotional events, and I happened to be walking into the BB&T Center with him. He eschewed the attention and almost seemed embarrassed by it. A few minutes later- he was quietly by himself taking a breather from what he knows will be the bright lights and attention that will follow him for the duration of a long NHL career. I thought that touch of humility- not coming off like he is bigger than the game or his team- was a good sign that the NHL’s next big thing deserves the spotlight, even if he doesn’t really want it.

Los Angeles Kings

Valentin Zykov, F- The rich get a little richer with this plum of a forward that Red Line projected in the first round in 2013 (26th), but slid down to the Kings at the 37th selection. He’s got a thick, pro-style build and can really skate and shoot the puck. He’s expected to be a big-time contributor to the AHL’s Ontario Reign. He missed the WJC last year due to injury, but is on a mission to prove himself and don’t be surprised if he sees some NHL action at some point this season- legitimate top-six scoring potential as a left wing in my view after splitting the year between Baie-Comeau and Gatineau of the QMJHL.

Minnesota Wild

Mike Reilly, D- The former Columbus prospect out of Shattuck St. Mary’s in 2011 declined to sign with the Blue Jackets and inked a deal with his home team Wild, where he makes his pro debut this season and might do enough to earn an NHL job coming out of camp. Although not blessed with a lot of size, he’s a premier puck mover with his mobility and vision as his 36 helpers in 39 games with the Golden Gophers attest.

Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr had this to say about Reilly in the always excellent Russo’s Rants blog by Minneapolis Star Tribue Wild beat writer Mike Russo:

He’s highly competitive,” Flahr said of Reilly. “His bread and butter is going to be his offense, but he needs to learn to take care of his own end, and I thought he did that, especially later in the game. Early I thought he was pressing a bit trying to do too much, which is totally normal in these things.”

Flahr said when Reilly began to settle down his play influenced the game.

“He made a lot of things happen for the back-end, and generated a lot of chances because of his mobility, and ability to get up ice and make plays,” Flahr said.

 

Nashville Predators

Juuse Saros, G- Little goalie that could is a rarity in this day and age- a sub-6-footer between the pipes vying for NHL time among the freakishly athletic redwoods that are in vogue. Gritty little competitor just stops the puck and has some Tim Thomas (on the ice) compete in his game. He gets his pads down fast and brings a never-say-die mentality to every scoring chance. I was a big fan in his draft year and believe he’ll reach the NHL despite the lack of size. I love this guy and if they don’t already, Preds fans will too.

 

St. Louis Blues 

Robby Fabbri, F- Boy, the Blues got themselves some terrific value with Fabbri a year ago at 21, when scouting lists like Red Line had him ranked in the top-10. He was part of Canada’s WJC gold medal-winning team, but missed the medal games due to a high ankle sprain after making an impact during the round robin portion. He’s a tremendous competitor who doesn’t seem bothered by his diminutive size, although some point to the injuries he’s had as indicators of what lies ahead as he moves into the more rugged pro ranks. Me? I love heart-and-soul guys who go out and get it done- he’s one of those types and more.

Tommy Vannelli, D- 20-year-old Minnesotan who left his home state to play in the WHL with the Medicine Hat Tigers is a truly gorgeous skater who can rev it up in his own end and push the offensive pace whenever he leads the rush. He’s always been rangy and aggressive- grabbing the puck and going with it- scoring a respectable 35 points in 44 games, a chunk lost to injury. He’s a talented player who only appears to be scratching the surface of his potential but will be given time to continue to grow and develop and won’t be rushed.

San Jose Sharks

Pat McNally, D- Former Vancouver pick in 2010 was a defense partner for fellow New Yorkers and Boston prospect Rob O’Gara at Milton Academy in 2010-11, and his riverboat gambler ways are what drew me to O’Gara in the first place- as he often found himself covering for McNally. When moving forward McNally has always been a threat, charging up the ice and in prep- he used his wheels and feared shot to score a lot of goals. His all-around game, however, has been more of a work in progress and he remains a project with some upside. We’ll see if the Sharks can harness his potential going forward, as this swashbuckler won’t get away with doing some of the things he did at lower levels now that he’s a pro.

Timo Meier, F- Boston was reportedly about to draft its first Swiss player in team history with Meier, whose heavy style and scoring chops would have been a fine fit. The Sharks beat them to the punch, grabbing the QMJHL standout inside the top-10 and Meier will probably become a reliable and dependable scorer for them in time.

Vancouver Canucks

Jake Virtanen, F- When Jim Benning left Boston to take the reins as Vancouver GM a year ago, it wasn’t a big surprise that he used his first draft choice on the big and skilled forward who has a natural knack for scoring goals. He took a step back in 2015 with Calgary of the WHL after being the sixth overall selection- only tallying 21 goals and barely registering a point-per-game. With more expected, watch for the 19-year-old to rebound this year with his speed and shot.

Winnipeg Jets

Nikolaj Ehlers, F- Wow, what a player! This top-10 selection in 2014 is an absolute stud who is going to make the rising Jets even faster and more dangerous offensively than they already are, which is saying a hell of a lot. You don’t want to overuse the word “special” to describe too many prospects but that’s what this Great Dane is. Turn him loose and as Mr. T used to say- pity the poor fool who lets Ehlers get a step on him…goodbye!

Nic Petan, F- The “Rainmaker” was a steal in the 2013’s second round and was such a consistent scorer for the Portland Winterhawks, registering 300 regular season points in the last three WHL seasons with playoff years of 28, 28, and 28 points in just 59 total games. Although smallish, he’s explosive and such a deft stickhandler and creative presence that he’s always a threat on each and every shift. The guy just knows how to find the back of the net, as evidenced by his 2015 WJC performance for Team Canada. Be afraid, goalies- be very afraid…

Eric Comrie, G- This stud goalie prospect fell a bit in 2013 because he suffered a serious injury, but he put together a great follow-on campaign with the Tri-City Americans in 2013-14, then looked pretty strong in a handful of AHL games when his junior season ended last spring. With his fluid athleticism and near-flawless technique, he’ll be pushing for quality NHL starts before too long.