At least #Veseywatch has ended.
The protracted summer romance between Jimmy Vesey and more than half a dozen teams around the league is over, and it’s not easy to figure out why the winner won. The New York Rangers? Sure, that was a team that was always going to have some amount of interest, but having the most interest? Having enough interest to actually get Vesey? Having a spot to give Vesey to make him think that’s the destination? Yeah, that’s a puzzler.
It’s mainly confusing because you look at what the Rangers have coming back for next season, and a player like Vesey doesn’t really fit the bill as a “need.” You look at the talent up front on Broadway and you have to reasonably conclude that Vesey, a 23-year-old with no NHL or even pro experience under his belt, might be the 10th-best forward on the roster. And that’s if you’re being a bit charitable.
But every team that decided to court him over the past week or so — from hometown Boston to traded-for-his-rights Buffalo to bargain-hunting Pittsburgh and Chicago, and even to sure-why-not New Jersey — had a semi-legitimate need for a player like this. In theory, he can score goals and on most teams he’s probably your third-best left wing at worst. That might even be true on the Rangers, depending upon how you feel about the rapidly declining stock of Nathan Gerbe.
And while the Rangers obviously would have promised him a more prominent role, the argument could easily be made that he’s not as good as any of J.T. Miller, Mika Zibanejad, or perhaps even Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg. Hell, if Vesey put up the 13-15-28 Lindberg netted in just 68 games last year, it would probably be cause for celebration.
It’s hard to justify a contract for a player who might end up being a fourth-line forward — not that there’s anything wrong with a fourth-line forward on an entry-level deal — because if Vesey hits his performance bonuses, that contract could cost nearly $4 million against the cap. That’s not exactly money the Rangers have to spend, unless they can successfully find ways to trade Rick Nash or one of their many anchors on defense.
That’s what’s really baffling at the heart of this Vesey deal: The Rangers have much more pressing needs than “depth forward.” Again, always nice to have depth, sure, but this isn’t a team that’s going to outscore its myriad problems on the blue line, probably even if Henrik Lundqvist (who’s already almost 34-and-a-half years old) continues to be one of the best goaltenders alive. With this signing, the Rangers have some $2.5 million in cap space but very little wiggle room bonus-wise.
The problem for Jeff Gorton is that he likely understands the situation he’s in but can do little about it. The two worst blue line contracts he has — those paying Marc Staal and Dan Girardi a combined $11.2 million against the cap — both come with no-movement clauses.
And while Ryan McDonagh is a borderline steal at $4.7 million (with a no-trade) he’s a bit overrated in terms of actual impact on the game, especially in his own end. All the stick Kevin Shattenkirk gets for being a one-way defenseman should, by rights, go to McDonagh instead. And with that having been said, McDonagh is the team’s clear No. 1. There’s not even a close No. 2, and it’s either Staal or Kevin Klein. Which is a worry, because neither is all that good.
Of course, it’s not as though there are too many options for Gorton to actually go out and fix his blue line. He’s stuck with the bad players who were given contracts they didn’t deserve. And the free agent market is, shall we say, barren. Looking at the list of UFA defenders who remain available, it’s telling that Kris Russell — a bottom-pairing defender whose biggest skill is blocking shots, something the Rangers need to do too much already — is arguably the most impactful.
Do you want Jakub Nakladal instead? You should, but that he’s gone this long without a deal perhaps suggests that Calgary is his only intended NHL destination. Perhaps Raphael Diaz? Well the Rangers already let him walk. It really is a wasteland, and very few of these guys move the needle at all.
As such, it boils down to hoping Brady Skjei is very good next season, and that Dylan McIlrath takes a huge unexpected leap forward, and that UFA Nick Holden can play be more useful than we really have much reason to expect.
Much was made in the past few days of the fact that the Rangers hadn’t used one of their first-round picks since 2012, when they took Skjei 28th overall. Skjei turned 22 in March, meaning that as prospects go, he’s no real spring chicken or phenom. This is the point at which a first-round defenseman really ought to be in the league, so here we are. He’s probably quite good for what he’ll be used as, but if he’s much more than that, it’s manna from heaven.
That’s really the point here: This is the Rangers raging against the dying of the legit Cup hopes. If they’re not gone already. Which they probably are. Vesey might have chosen them because they have plenty of cap flexibility coming for the end of his current two-year deal, meaning that if he performs very, very well during that time, he might be able to pull more than the inflation-adjusted equivalent of the apparent bridge deal Kevin Hayes just signed (two years, $2.6 million per). Of course, we might also be just a year away from another lockout for 2019-20 by then, so you never know when teams like the Rangers might opt for caution here instead.
It’s really tough to see why either party makes this decision. For Vesey, he would likely be guaranteed more than a chance to stick in the top-six with a team that had a little less offensive depth than the Rangers, and certainly a few would have given him the chance to actually do more than make the playoffs and get run out pretty quickly.
In terms of where the Rangers’ Cup chances actually sit, the wave has clearly already crested and is in the process of crashing and retreating back into the sea. There’s simply less hope there than anywhere else. And for the Rangers, Vesey doesn’t address any particular or clear need. Other than the one to grab headlines in August.
People think Kevin Hayes — 31 goals and 81 points in his first two NHL seasons — is a disappointment for the Rangers. (It’s mostly because Alain Vigneault seems not to recognize that the 24-year-old can handle a heavier workload.) He’s 17th in the league in 5-on-5 primary assists over the past two seasons. If Vesey can do anything close to that, it would be a minor miracle.
It is therefore difficult to see where either party really benefits here. The Rangers don’t need Vesey (not that there’s a negative here, really; they just don’t actually need him). Vesey, given that every option he entertained was going to be virtually the same, doesn’t need the Rangers.
And yet here we are. Tough to figure.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: It would be a lot easier to believe this were it not for the whole “Jonathan Bernier” thing.
Arizona Coyotes: Never have I disagreed with a headline more fervently.
Florida Panthers: Olli Jokinen is starting a year-round hockey school in Southern Florida. Man, remember Olli Jokinen? He scored 89 and 91 points in back-to-back seasons one time. There was a five-year stretch in which he missed just one game, and scored 173 goals. Dude was real good once.
Las Vegas No-Names: Jason Zucker and Deryk Engelland played in a charity game in Vegas. Boy they’re trying to grow that market in a hurry.
San Jose Sharks: One wonders what Timo Meier actually does with the Sharks this year. Maybe they can’t even afford to roll him out a little cautiously, given the future of the club a year or three from now.
St. Louis Blues: This seems sub-optimal.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Jon Cooper is quite optimistic about Jonathan Drouin’s pending improvement. And why not, really?
Toronto Maple Leafs: Ah well, losing out on Vesey is just one of those things. Doesn’t really matter.
Gold Star Award
I mean, it’s better to get a free agent you want than to not-get him, so well done to Jeff Gorton, I guess.
Minus of the Weekend
But hey if you missed out, honestly, whatever.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “Oleg Petrov” wants to make the Rangers’ blue line… worse?
To NYR: Pacioretty $4.5 until 18-19, Emelin $4.1 until 17-18
To MTL: McDonagh $4.7 until 18-19, Nash (50% retained) $3.9 until 17-18
Agh! Das wagenphone ist ein… nuisance-phone!