While July 1 remains the most important day on the offseason calendar, almost every NHL general manager will have a second date circled. That would be August 15, the date Harvard star forward and Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey officially becomes an unrestricted free agent. It is at that point, Vesey will officially become the most popular man in hockey among team executives.
At a listed 6-foot-3, and 203 pounds, Vesey looks like he could be an immediate top-six forward for a lot of teams. His last two seasons at Harvard were particularly impressive, with Vesey putting up a total of 56 goals and 104 points in 70 games over his junior and senior seasons.
The 23-year-old left wing's negotiating rights are currently owned by the Buffalo Sabres, who struck a deal with the Nashville Predators more than two weeks ago to acquire those rights. Vesey was originally drafted by Nashville in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He then opted to remain at Harvard for his full four years. He decided not to sign with Nashville despite their offer, which opened up the avenue of unrestricted free agency after graduation. Knowing they wouldn't be able to change his mind, the Preds recouped a draft pick in their trade with Buffalo.
According to his agents, Vesey still plans to wait and explore free agency despite the Sabres making the aggressive play to trade for his rights. The player and his reps are still taking a meeting with the Sabres Thursday, though, according to NHL.com's Amalie Benjamin.
While the Sabres have a really good recruiting pitch on their side, the allure of being able to choose where you can go, with just about every team interested, remains strong for Vesey. He still can't talk to other teams until Aug. 15, but told Benjamin that he and his agents plan to narrow his list down to a small number of teams to talk to after he officially becomes a UFA.
Vesey has indicated he thinks he'd prefer to stay in the Northeast where he's spent the entirety of his hockey career, having grown up in North Reading, Mass. That means his hometown Boston Bruins are very much in the mix and possibly the favorites to land the talented prospect. That doesn't mean other teams are going to back off, though.
According to Mark Divver of the Providence Journal, Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman was in town Wednesday night to watch Vesey during a summer league skate with pros from in and around Massachusetts. He probably won't be the last GM to show up, either, and others probably already have.
The important thing to remember in this is that there will be no bidding war. He can only sign the maximum under the entry-level system ($925,000 base, with bonus opportunities), which pretty much every team has the cap flexibility to offer. The price and his potential are the big draws, which is why so many teams want in.
With money capped, Vesey's decision should come down mostly to fit. As Vesey told Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe, he will be considering who the coach is, the team's style of play and whether or not both he and the team envision him in a top-six role and/or on the power play.
That doesn't get overly specific, but Vesey did also specifically state to the Globe that he thinks he'd prefer to stay in the Northeast. While Boston and Buffalo look to be among he most likely fits, the Toronto Maple Leafs are also considered strong contenders as Vesey's dad, Jim, is a scout for the organization and younger brother Nolan is a Toronto draft pick.
With all of the options that Vesey will have in front of him, and on the occasion of his meeting with Sabres brass, I decided to take a look at the most serious contenders for Vesey's services as a bit of a free agency primer in the likely event he chooses not to sign with Buffalo before Aug. 15.
The Pitch: The opportunity to play at home is the obvious angle here. It is generally assumed that the Bruins are his top choice after spending the entirety of his hockey career in Massachusetts. On top of that, the Bruins have holes in their scoring depth, especially after losing Loui Eriksson to free agency. Vesey could potentially slot in on a line with established veterans in the top six and get the power-play time he seeks. He shouldn't be expected to be the focal point of the offense, because the Bruins already have those players. Being insulated by the veterans could help make a clearer path to success. The only real downside is the pressure that comes with being a local kid trying to make good on the local team. The hype he's generating will put him under the microscope here more than anywhere else.
The Pitch: The Sabres have a lot to offer in terms of opportunity for Vesey. They also have fellow Massachusetts native and summer league teammate Jack Eichel to help in recruiting. There's no question that they're a team on the rise and Vesey could help contribute to that. The opportunity to play alongside either Eichel or Ryan O'Reilly is a very real one, meaning Vesey will have capable centers who can get him the puck. On top of that, owner Terry Pegula has helped change the culture in Buffalo as the team comes out of its rebuilding phase and goes into playoff contender mode. Being a part of the Sabres' resurgence is something to consider. They'll have had a nearly two-month head start on everyone else, too, which means every pitch Vesey hears will have to stand up against theirs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Pitch: The team will be skewing younger next season more out of necessity than anything else. Head coach Mike Babcock hasn't been overly liberal with his use of young players for a lot of his career, which could be a potential road block, but there are so many young guys that Babcock won't have much choice but to play them a ton. If Toronto's pitch is that they see Vesey being part of the young core that they're forming around No. 1 pick Auston Matthews and top prospects Mitch Marner and William Nylander, that's going to give him something to consider more carefully. Having Vesey's father on staff gives them some extra insight, but Jim Vesey has maintained he will give his son the space to make this decision on his own.
New York Rangers: Once the Rangers get all of their restricted free agents re-signed, the salary cap is going to become a real issue. That makes a player like Vesey more valuable to them. They can also show Vesey their success with transitioning Kevin Hayes, who took the same route Vesey did to free agency, into an immediate full-time NHLer. That said, there's a real question of whether Vesey fits here and if he could supplant any of the Rangers' established top-six forwards.
New York Islanders: If Vesey wants to stay east, the Islanders have a lot to offer as a playoff contender. He'd have to compete for a top-six role, which would be more difficult since left wing Andrew Ladd was signed on July 1 and other Islanders are already better established under head coach Jack Capuano. It's still an option worth considering.
Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers keep popping up as a potential dark horse to land Vesey and it's not hard to see why. They could use another scoring forward and could dangle a top-six opportunity to try and entice Vesey. With the team's forward core well established around Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and still unsigned RFA Brayden Schenn, Vesey would be surrounded by players that could help him succeed quickly.
Chicago Blackhawks: The revolving door that was the left wing on Chicago's line featuring Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa will continue revolving after the Blackhawks lost Teuvo Teravainen, Andrew Shaw and Andrew Ladd from last year's team. While it's hard to imagine Joel Quenneville being on board with guaranteeing a rookie a spot on that line, the Blackhawks are going to have to use that opening on their roster in their pitch to try to lure him from the Northeast. They need a cheap option and Vesey could end up being a fit.
St. Louis Blues: With the departures of David Backes, Troy Brouwer and others in free agency, the Blues have a few holes at forward. The Globe cited the Blues as a potential landing spot due to some connections between Vesey's father and members of the St. Louis front office. Despite those losses, the Blues still have a lot of options on their current roster to fill out their top six. It looks like less of a fit here, but it never hurts to try to add more scoring and they've got a younger core of players that they're turning the team over to, basically.
New Jersey Devils: The Devils are making moves that are more geared towards boosting scoring. Adding Taylor Hall in a trade and re-signing Kyle Palmieri to a long-term deal shows the team's commitment to pushing the pace more, which would play to Vesey's strengths. He'd be a big addition for a team that always is on the search for more goals.
While these may be the teams among the most likely destinations, you can never count out what will happen in a situation where a player has so many options. The Bruins and Sabres are probably the teams to beat, but it only makes sense for Vesey to listen to everything he possibly can. This decision obviously impacts the next two years most, but if things go well enough, Vesey could be choosing the team he spends the bulk of his career with.