The Buffalo Sabres are either feeling a little lucky or they're supremely confident in their recruiting abilities. The team announced Monday that it had acquired the negotiating rights to Jimmy Vesey, the Harvard University standout who recently spurned offers to join the Nashville Predators in order to explore free agency. In return, the Predators get the Sabres' third-round pick at 76th overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Vesey, who won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player, is due to become an unrestricted free agent on August 15.
The Sabres now have exclusive negotiating rights to the former third-round draft pick and can sign him well before that deadline. There are no guarantees that he will sign with the club, but he does play summer hockey with Sabres forward Jack Eichel, according to ESPN's John Buccigross, giving the team a recruiter on the front lines.
The Predators originally drafted Vesey 66th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. They tried multiple times to sign him, but with his draft rights set to expire following his senior season and a skill set many NHL teams would covet, Vesey decided free agency would be a better option. That way he could choose wherever he wanted to go.
UPDATE: Peter Donatelli, one of Vesey's agents, informed ESPN's Joe McDonald that his client still plans to explore unrestricted free agency:
"In our opinion, the only thing that has happened is now the Sabres have stepped into the shoes of Nashville for exclusive rights [to negotiate] until Aug. 15. However, at this time, it doesn't change Jimmy Vesey's intention to become a free agent on Aug. 15."
The North Reading, Mass., native had a strong four years with the Crimson, but really took off in the last two. He had 32 goals and 58 points as a junior, then put up 24 goals and 46 points as a senior. He was a Hobey Baker finalist in each year, winning it at the end of the 2015-16 campaign. He also has a World Junior championship gold medal he won with Team USA in 2013.
He is a projected top-six winger, with a good shot and an ability to create offensively. He's grown up a lot since he was drafted by the Predators and has made a lot of the weaknesses that had him slip into the third round become less of an issue. That offensive potential he has is a big reason why interest in him will be high if he still chooses to hit free agency.
Now 23, Vesey has the opportunity to go through a recruiting process, one that could involve most of the teams in the NHL. Since he's beholden to the NHL's entry-level contract system, this isn't going to be about money. Every single team can offer the same maximum contract. So it comes down to fit and perhaps opportunity.
With the Sabres, Vesey would undoubtedly make the NHL roster right away. He would have with Nashville, too, but the power to pick where you want to go was too enticing. That said, there have been growing rumblings that the Sabres, starting on the upswing of their rebuild, would be a serious contender. Since they shipped a third-round draft pick to Nashville just for negotiating rights, you'd have to think Buffalo's confidence in landing the player is very high.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins have also been thought to be serious contenders in the Vesey sweepstakes as well. Vesey's father Jim works for the Leafs as a scout, while the Bruins are his hometown team and the player has spent the entirety of his hockey career in the Boston area.
The Eichel connection could prove particularly important for the Sabres. The two are both Massachusetts natives, and surely know each other well. They also share the same agent, Peter Fish. They'd also give the Sabres each of the last two Hobey Baker winners on their roster, and maybe they'd even end up as linemates. The Sabres, needless to say, have a strong pitch to land the highly-touted NCAA star.
Meanwhile, the Predators get something for a player they know they wouldn't have signed. On the other side, the Sabres are taking a lighter risk to go after a player that won't cost them much against the salary cap and could have an immediate impact on their roster if he chooses to sign with them. It sounds like they'll have some work to do to make that happen, though.