It’s already started for Jimmy Vesey. The Harvard University standout who opted not to sign with the Nashville Predators in the spring finally became a free agent on Aug. 16 and on Friday became a member of the New York Rangers. After signing his two-year deal to join the club, hopefully Vesey steered clear of his Twitter mentions.
As has been the case for previous players who declined to sign with the team that drafted them in favor of picking their destination in free agency, Vesey has faced his fair share of criticism.
It was inevitable. There were the nasty tweets and there have even been a few columns critical of the 23-year-old winger, most notably this one from the Buffalo News. New teammate Kevin Hayes can relate, as he went through the same thing two years ago after forgoing a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Vesey actually has a lot of company for pulling this move to become a free agent, but the attention on him surpassed previous examples. There was Hayes, who has been off to a pretty solid start to his career. Blake Wheeler did it way back in 2008, when this was relatively unheard of. He eventually developed into a top scorer in the league.
Justin Schultz probably had the closest hype to what Vesey experienced back in 2010, but he never really lived up to it after signing with the Edmonton Oilers. That’s just one cautionary tale, even though Schultz will probably gladly show off his Stanley Cup ring he just won with the Pittsburgh Penguins to his critics.
As far as Vesey is concerned, he is going to face more scrutiny and more attention than those guys did in their rookie years. It’s just how it works. Vesey didn’t necessarily ask for the hype which only grew as his summer free agency eligibility creeped nearer and nearer. However, his decision not to sign with Nashville opened the door for what came over the last week and now he’ll have to contend with that early on in his NHL career.
The myth about this whole process is that the “easy” decision is the one to go to free agency. It’s certainly the most appealing from a business standpoint, but taking this route is not for the faint of heart. Vesey opened himself up to a mountain of pressure before he even steps foot on NHL ice.
If Vesey signed with Nashville, he would have had an immediate top-nine role on a playoff team, would have been able to burn a year off of his contract and would have been in a system very friendly to a player of his offensive capabilities. It would have been the predictable thing to do. It also would have passed without an iota of criticism.
When a player decides to exercise his collectively-bargained right not to sign with the team that drafted him and explore free agency, the perception of doing so is challenging to take on. It’s kind of a hockey culture thing. The guys who don’t do what they’re told or what is perceived to be “the right thing to do” are chastised. Spoiled, selfish and primadonna seem to be common words tossed out for these players.
But again, this is a collectively bargained right. It’s not a loophole. It’s not some backdoor deal. It’s written in the rules. A team has four years to sign a player that goes to the NCAA so long as that player stays a college student the whole time. And Nashville tried.
He had previously been offered opportunities to sign with the Predators, particularly after his junior year when he posted a rare 30-plus goal season in the NCAA. Vesey decided to stay another year. Some think it was purely a business decision, but Vesey maintained it was his desire to get his Harvard degree before embarking on his NHL career. There were absolutely business benefits to deciding to do that, but who can fault him for wanting to make sure he left Harvard — again, HARVARD — with a degree?
Because of the attention paid to a player who had never played even a second of NHL hockey, the backlash is to be expected. After already jilting the Predators’ fan base, Vesey had suitors from eight different teams, with everyone believing they had a real shot. So there’s seven more fan bases that have an added reason to dislike Vesey aside from his wearing enemy colors.
This is the hard part of the decision that Vesey has to contend with. But none of that compares to the pressure he is bound to face when it comes time to perform, given all the hype and all of the attention and such fervent recruiting from top NHL clubs has created for his rookie season.
Again, Vesey had perceived easy decisions. Go with the hometown team in Boston, go with the team his dad worked for in Toronto. Go with recent Stanley Cup champions like Pittsburgh or Chicago and play with some of the game’s biggest stars.
Of all the teams Vesey met with, the Rangers may have been the one with the fewest lineup needs at forward. They have top-six left wingers in Rick Nash and Chris Kreider. Vesey isn’t supplanting them. However, Vesey said New York made a compelling pitch and convinced him that they really needed him in their lineup. What he gets there is going to have to be earned, though.
On top of that, the lengths the Rangers went to woo Vesey won’t do him any favors. He was getting tweets from some of the Rangers’ most famous fans like Susan Sarandon and New York athletes like Noah Syndergaard and the recently-retired Justin Tuck. There was also a report that during their pitch, the team used a video featuring Liam Neeson delivering his most famous line from Taken to urge Vesey to sign with the Rangers. Seriously.
That just shows how out of hand the recruiting battle got. All of that contributes to the perception that Vesey is going to be an immediate star.
The hype that surrounded him is assuredly greater than what his immediate impact will be. That’s especially true on the Rangers. With the Blackhawks or Islanders or Sabres or probably even the Bruins, it was more likely Vesey would be able to at least eventually earn a top-six role during the 2016-17. His scoring potential in an elevated role in the lineup obviously goes up, because quality of linemates and total ice time is obviously a huge factor.
That’s what makes Vesey’s decision so interesting. He’s not necessarily setting himself up for a path of least resistance to start his NHL career. There’s a chance he might be able to assume a greater role on the team after Nash leaves or if they make some other moves, but that’s not going to happen right away. It might not even happen over the course of his two-year contract.
Escaping the criticism during his rookie season, when it will likely be at its most intense, is going to be difficult if he’s in a lower-line role.
Most players that decide to go to free agency are going to look for the spot where it’s going to be easy to get an immediate NHL job, a place they can instantly produce. Vesey either is supremely confident that he’ll transition easily or he wanted a greater challenge leading into his next contract. Whatever the case, picking the Rangers was not the obvious choice even if reuniting with childhood teammate Hayes was appealing.
A lot of the criticism against Vesey has been misplaced, though. He didn’t do the obvious thing by signing with Nashville, then he had so many easy options in front of him in terms of destinations that are easy to explain as better fits. He willfully picked one of the most challenging situations. There’s something to be admired about that even if you don’t like the way he went about it.
It only gets harder from here, though. Now comes the part where he has to prove all of this was worth it.