In four days, Jimmy Vesey will become the best unrestricted free agent in a market that has mostly been picked over since July 1. The Harvard University standout's draft rights, now owned by the Buffalo Sabres following a summer trade with the Nashville Predators, will expire on Aug. 15, allowing him to talk to any team he wants.
Vesey surely would draw interest from most every team in the league with his credentials as the Hobey Baker winner last year and the fact that his base salary cannot exceed $925,000. However, he and his agents have determined it best to narrow down the list to select teams he will talk to after he can fully participate in the unrestricted free agency prospect.
According to the Boston Herald, Vesey's list will consist of no more than six teams. Whichever teams make that list, they're the ones the 23-year-old left winger will speak with before making his decision on a destination for a two-year entry level contract.
The shortlist has not been revealed, but the serious contenders seem to have been separated from the pack.
Here's what Peter Fish, Vesey's agent, told the Herald:
"What Jimmy wants to do is see it through," said Fish. "He's wanted to go to free agency and he's going to see it through. There's about 4-5 teams other than Buffalo that he wants to hear from. And then after that he's going to make a decision. I think he'd love for the Bruins to be one of those teams. I assume that we will be taking a call from them.
"We've looked at depth charts with some teams and talked about them. . . . "There's obviously a lot of thought that goes into it: The city, the coach, the GM, the salary structure, how a team treats their players in the second and third contracts down the road."
The immediate favorite, at least when it was revealed that Vesey would not sign with the Nashville Predators to wait out his shot at free agency last spring, was the Boston Bruins. The Massachusetts native has played the entirety of his hockey career near home and grew up a Bruins fan. Additionally, after the Bruins lost Loui Eriksson in free agency, they could probably use an extra scoring winger on the roster these days.
Vesey has also been tied to the Toronto Maple Leafs due to the fact that his father, Jim, who played briefly in the NHL as well, is a scout for the club. Additionally Vesey's younger brother Nolan is a Toronto draft pick. The Leafs are in a bit of a cap crunch, but you'd have to think there's an interest there, especially as he'd be another young ace prospect on a team that is suddenly bustling with them.
The Sabres, who took the initiative to trade for his rights even though it guaranteed them nothing, are still in the mix as Fish noted. The club has already met with Vesey to give their pitch. Getting in early has its advantages and disadvantages, but every other pitch will have to be compared to theirs. Additionally, Vesey has been skating alongside Sabres center Jack Eichel during his summer workouts in Foxborough, Mass., which has suddenly become a frequent stop for NHL GMs throughout July and August.
One of the GMs that has been there multiple times this summer, per Mark Divver of the Providence Journal, is Stan Bowman of the Chicago Blackhawks. It was also reported that head coach Joel Quenneville had stopped in to take a look at the talented forward at one point. Chicago has a definite need to add more scoring after further offseason losses from last year's team. A spot alongside Jonathan Toews is not out of the cards for Vesey, which is probably Chicago's best bargaining chip.
As the summer has rolled on, the New York Rangers and even more recently, the New Jersey Devils have been rumored to be in the mix.
According to Divver, Devils GM Ray Shero was in Foxboro Wednesday to get a look at Vesey. The Herald dubbed the Devils as a potential darkhorse to land Vesey, citing an NHL scout as the source. CSN New England's Joe Haggerty reported Wednesday that the Devils are one of three teams expected to have the best shot at landing Vesey. The Rangers and Blackhawks were the other two listed in the report. Vesey still has to hear all of the pitches, though, which could sway things in any number of directions.
The Devils really are an intriguing option, though. They have been investing a lot in their forward group, with a big extension for 30-goal man Kyle Palmieri and trading for Taylor Hall, one of the top young left wingers in the league. They still need more scoring pop, though, and would certainly have room to add Vesey in a top-six role. They also have a good potential recruiter in assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, who has been involved in the Boston hockey community for years. Head coach John Hynes is also a native New Englander.
The Rangers remain interesting, too. They've had some success in this kind of free agency scenario before, signing Kevin Hayes after he spurned the Blackhawks when his draft rights expired. Having Massachusetts natives like Hayes and Chris Kreider gives the Rangers a couple of recruiters on the front lines, too. The question for the Rangers is if they would have the kind of top-six role Vesey is hoping for.
There is no confirmation that these six teams are going to be the six that Vesey talks to, but each of them has a decent case to make. There are certainly others that are going to call, too. Divver reported that Islanders GM Garth Snow was also spotted in Foxborough scouting Vesey Wednesday night.
There is no bidding war, because Vesey is beholden to the entry-level system, which maxes out base salary and bonuses at reasonable prices ($92,500 signing bonus, max of $2.85 million in performance bonuses). The playing field is level on that front. All of the teams have an opening-night roster spot for him and most can offer the kind of role he expects to have. So, it's going to come down to fit and feel, it seems as GMs sharpen their best sales pitch for a player that could have an immediate impact on their roster despite never having played a second of NHL hockey.
Vesey's agents hopefully have built up a cushion in their cell phone plans because those things are going to be ringing a lot on Monday. Over the days following the Aug. 15 expiration date, it should become more clear which teams got to speak with Vesey. No matter who he talks to, the NCAA standout will have a tough decision to make when the time comes.