Vesey Watch is officially over as Jimmy Vesey, the highly coveted free agent out of Harvard University, has signed with the New York Rangers. After spurning the Nashville Predators, who drafted him in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and later the Buffalo Sabres, who acquired his draft rights from Nashville, Vesey picked the Rangers from eight different finalists.
The 23-year-old left wing signed a two-year contract under the NHL's entry-level system. While terms were not disclosed, it is expected that Vesey signed the maximum allowable under the entry level system. That includes a base salary of $925,000, a signing bonus of $92,500 for each year of the deal and up to $2.85 million annually in performance bonuses. For now, the Rangers only have to worry about a $925,000 cap hit for Vesey in 2016-17. If he hits his performance bonuses, there could potentially be an overage tacked on to the 2017-18 cap.
Among the teams that also made pitches to Vesey after his draft rights expired on Aug. 15 were the Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Vesey's hometown Boston Bruins. The Sabres made their pitch before his draft rights expired and were considered a finalist among the seven other clubs.
Vesey had a strong four-year career at Harvard and was among the best players in the country over his final two seasons. If not for Jack Eichel's historic freshman year in 2014-15, Vesey probably would have won back-to-back Hobey Baker Awards. He put up 32 goals and 58 points in 37 games as a junior that season. The following year, his numbers dipped as he captained the Crimson, but he came away as the surprise Hobey Baker winner, edging Michigan's Kyle Connor, after putting up 24 goals and 46 points in 33 games. He was as dominant a goal scorer in college hockey as you'll see over the past two years, which somewhat overshadowed his excellent playmaking skills.
Vesey also has good size, tacking on muscle over his college career to take his game to the next level. At about 6-feet-2 and 200 pounds, he isn't as easy to push around as he was as a lanky, but skilled player in his draft season. Nashville was prepared to give him an immediate roster spot when his season ended at Harvard, but he decided not to sign. He could have burned a year off of his contract by playing in the NHL last season, but ultimately could not turn down the chance to explore free agency by allowing his draft rights to expire.
Early on, the Bruins were considered the favorites to land the Charlestown, Massachusetts, product as he decided to head to free agency. They even got the last word as the last team to meet with him. However, Vesey also had ties to other teams. Most notably, Vesey's father, Jim, is a scout with the Maple Leafs. There was also that push from Buffalo to acquire his draft rights in June to get a head start on the rest of the league. In the end, he didn't necessarily make the predictable decision.
Of all the teams, the Rangers really seemed to put on the full court press in recruiting. A number of their famous fans, including Susan Sarandon and Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard among many others, even made public pleas on Twitter for Vesey to come to Broadway.
For New York, this is another big recruiting win as they also acquired Kevin Hayes in the same fashion, after his draft rights expired two years ago. They've gotten a solid two years out of Hayes, who re-signed with the club on a two-year bridge deal.
Hayes actually may have helped land the Harvard star, too. The two workout together in the summers and also were teammates as kids. Hayes was quick to express his excitement over the acquisition on Twitter.
Considering that the Rangers have traded so many of their first-round draft picks over the years, adding guys like Hayes and Vesey allows the team to recoup some of those prospect losses. Like they got with Hayes, the Rangers have landed an NHL-ready prospect with Vesey. He should push for a role within the team's middle six forwards and should afford the team some immediate scoring depth.
While Vesey's college success suggests that he should have a pretty easy transition to the pros, it's no sure thing. That said, he remains a low-risk signing as the Rangers have made a two-year commitment that will end up costing them less than $1 million against the cap.
That's why there were so many teams trying to get him. The price matters just as much as the talent. While the hype and attention he got over this process may have seemed over the top, the reason teams wanted him so badly is because of the low-risk nature of the commitment. The fact that there's not much else going on in the hockey world in August only made the spotlight on him brighter.
We've seen UFAs who let their draft rights expire go on to great success like Blake Wheeler, and we've seen others fail to live up to the hype like Justin Schultz. Hayes has done pretty well for himself early in his career, too.
Nothing is guaranteed, but Vesey looks to have the ability to put together a pretty nice career. Because of this route he chose to take, it only increases the scrutiny on him, but to have the chance to pick wherever you want to play is an opportunity he may never get again in his career. Put a lot of other players in his position and they're doing the same thing by choosing free agency.
The Rangers, at a minimum, improved organizational depth here. If Vesey hits on his vast potential, they may have struck gold and have a high-end top-six scorer. Only time will tell, but for now, they can be satisfied about a big win in a most intense recruiting battle.