One of the strangest free agency scrambles in recent memory is finally over. Harvard’s Hobey Baker-winning winger Jimmy Vesey finally decided that the New York Rangers were his best landing spot, I would guess mostly because of encouraging tweets by everyone from Noah Syndegaard and Muhammad Wilkerson to Anne Burrell from The Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America.
— anne burrell (@chefanneburrell) August 16, 2016
But what exactly are Rangers fans expecting from their new forward? What should they be expecting?
Vesey’s hype far exceeds his stature as a hockey player at this point. As a junior, there’s little doubt he wins the Hobey Baker if it isn’t for the historic season Jack Eichel put up at Boston University, but getting the award this season almost felt like a makeup. He was 17th in points and 8th in points per game this season, and while Harvard doesn’t quite have the same quality roster that a top Hockey East school might, he wasn’t exactly surrounded by also-rans either. Vesey did help carry the Crimson through stretches of the season, but there were underclassmen who absolutely had better seasons than he (specifically Kyle Connor at Michigan).
In 15 games against top 20 opponents in the NCAA this season, Vesey had eight goals and seven assists. Impressive numbers, but not world-beating for 22-year-old. What was a bit concerning was Vesey’s inability to really impact his team’s last two games of the season, the ECAC Championship against Quinnipiac and the first round of the NCAA playoffs against Boston College. Vesey was held off the scoresheet in both games, putting up four shots on goal. A very small sample, and not an indictment of Vesey, but a reminder that just because he won the Hobey Baker doesn’t mean he was absolutely dominating college hockey.
Hobey Baker award-winning seniors don’t exactly have a stellar history in the NHL either. In 2013 Drew LeBlanc won the award as a senior, and after two NHL games and a couple of years in the AHL he’s found a home in Germany. Jack Connolly won the award in 2012 and never played an NHL game. Andy Miele has played in 15 since taking home the award in 2011. We can keep going. None of these players are Jimmy Vesey, who most (including myself) believe to be a much better pro prospect, but it’s worth keeping in mind when people boast about the credentials of winning the Hobey Baker once as a senior. For Rangers fans especially, keep in mind the hype around Matt Gilroy when he signed.
Hoping for a Long Run on Broadway
Another reason to temper expectations is, honestly, that Vesey chose the Rangers in the first place. Other teams that made their pitches have a stronger current roster or more promising future. As Vesey said himself, “Talking to them, it seemed that they really needed to have me in their lineup and it seemed that they believe in me. That was something that I was looking for. And I think based on our talks, New York was the right fit.” (Emphasis added.)
This screams “job security” to me. That’s not a knock on Vesey — if I were in his position I would be looking for the team that gave me the best opportunity to play right away too — but what exactly does that say about the Rangers current roster that both the Rangers and Vesey feel he’s going to instantly step into the lineup and make an impact?
On a positive note, there’s a reason why so many teams went after Vesey the way they did. He has NHL size, great hockey IQ, impressive vision, strong skating ability, and he can finish. You don’t score over 100 points in two seasons in the ECAC without being a very good hockey player, and his size gives him an edge over some of those aforementioned Hobey Baker winners who couldn’t quite cut it at the next level. He’s got the potential to be a very solid NHL player for a long time.
Pension Plan Puppets explored the production of ECAC forwards currently in the NHL while they were playing in the NCAA, and Vesey’s 1.13 PPG placed him 3rd behind Chris Higgins (1.31) and Dominic Moore (1.15). Pretty good company, two NHL regulars who have both eclipsed the 40-point mark at least once in their careers. These comparisons are a bit rough, as the ECAC Higgins, Moore, and the older guys on this list played in wasn’t quite as competitive as the ECAC that Vesey faced. If you narrow Vesey’s production down to just his junior and senior seasons, he posted 1.48 PPG. That’s pretty damn good.
It’s been easy to let ourselves get carried away with the story of Jimmy Vesey, but fans need to be careful to not set the bar too high on the kid. He may be able to step right in and be a very nice player like his close friend Kevin Hayes did. He may also struggle out of the gate and take a few years to really find his game. I think Vesey has great upside, but to shove him into the top six or even consider him an instant difference maker is probably too optimistic right now.