On Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey, who everyone thinks will sign with the Maple Leafs

Nashville Predators prospect Jimmy Vesey is lighting it up for the Harvard Crimson.

The 22-year-old senior forward was a third-round pick of the Predators back in 2012 and with 14 points in just eight games this season, he currently leads all NCAA skaters in goals per game. 

For the Predators, it’s gut check time with Vesey. Because of Article 8.6(c)(iv) of the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Vesey can withdraw from school following his senior season, but before graduation, and become an unrestricted free agent in August 15. It’s widely believed that he’ll do so, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to have an inside track on signing the highly regarded senior winger since they drafted Jimmy’s brother Nolan Vesey back in 2014 and also hired his father to be a scout for the organization.

How good is Vesey, and how big a coup would it be for the club if they managed to sign him?

CBA mechanics

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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports

Before we get into Vesey’s track record and production, let’s update the latest scuttlebutt regarding his possible free agent status. 

Currently the 22-year-old forward is a Predators unsigned draft pick, and if he withdraws from school prior to graduation they’ll maintain his exclusive negotiating rights through August 15. This is the oft-employed Justin Schultz/Kevin Hayes loophole, and you know the Predators would absolutely hate to lose an asset like Vesey for nothing.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie wrote about Vesey in late November, and mentioned that Predators general manager David Poile has insisted that the young Harvard forward will have a spot on their NHL roster immediately from the moment he decides to turn pro. For NHL teams looking to ensure that their best college prospects get signed, this is their most effective bullet in the chamber (in addition to the max $92,500 signing bonus they can offer, but that works better for non-seniors). 

The Predators can sign Vesey and opt to have his entry-level contract begin for the current 2015-16 league year, which would immediately burn a season of his first NHL contract and bring him closer to a bigger pay day. This is how the Flames induced Johnny Gaudreau to leave Boston College – Gaudreau even appeared in the final Flames game of the 2013-14 campaign – and a good thing they did.

Because Vesey is 22 (though he could be 23 by the time he signs an entry-level deal as an unrestricted free agent in August), the Predators essentially have the advantage of being able to offer their top college prospect what would effectively be a one-year entry level deal. If Vesey signs with anyone else this summer, it’ll be a two-year entry-level contract.

The family connection

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Jimmy’s brother Nolan, a sixth-round selection of the Maple Leafs, is currently playing for the Maine Blackbears. He’s an unsigned draft pick, and the Maple Leafs have a couple years yet to make a decision on whether or not to offer him an NHL deal.

Jimmy’s brother Jim Senior, is a collegiate-level scout for the Maple Leafs. When the club hired Jim Sr., it caused eyebrows to be furrowed across the hockey world, according to McKenzie.

The Leafs hiring the father of a top prospect, who could opt for free agency over the Predators, was widely viewed in the NHL community as an all-too-obvious inducement to perhaps skew the player’s decision-making process in Toronto’s favour.

The Leafs, however, maintain it was the elder Vesey who reached out to Toronto about a scouting job…

There is also a third-party connection between Maple Leaf president Brendan Shanahan and Vesey Sr. that actually led to the hiring. They have a good mutual friend in former St. Louis Blue Kelly Chase. Vesey Sr. and Chase were teammates in the Blues’ organization for the better part of three seasons and remain good friends today. Chase and Shanahan were also NHL teammates and remain good friends.

… Chase called Shanahan to make the Leaf boss aware of Vesey Sr.’s interest in a scouting job.

… Shanahan referred the request from Chase to Toronto’s director of scouting Mark Hunter, who subsequently made the hire.

You’d do well to always look for the family connection when it comes to discussing NCAA players taking advantage of article 8.6(c)(iv). Kevin Hayes’ decision to spurn the Chicago Blackhawks was widely believed to be motivated, in part, by how the organization treated his brother Jimmy. Free agent NCAA defenseman Mike Reilly chose the Minnesota Wild over a large handful of interested suitors this past summer and it came as a surprise to absolutely nobody since his father is a minority stakeholder in the Wild franchise. We’ve seen this story unfold before.

How good is Vesey?

How many times have Maple Leafs fans heard extraordinary reports of the latest NCAA stud only to have that player fail to materialize as an everyday NHL player?

For every Tyler Bozak or Jake Gardiner, there’s several players like Christian Hanson or Matt Frattin or John Pohl. 

Vesey’s production over the past few seasons with Harvard has been excellent. He was third among NCAA players in scoring last season, trailing only Jack Eichel and Eichel’s linemate Evan Rodriguez and four points clear of the fourth highest scoring player, Toronto Marlies depth winger Zach Hyman. He finished the 2014-15 campaign in the top-10 in the NCAA by shot rate (just behind Detroit Red Wings prospect Dylan Larkin), and led all NCAA players in goals per game rate. 

Once again Vesey is leading the NCAA in goals per game rate this season, and he’s currently sporting a top-five shot rate also. Whether or not he’s a future top-six forward in the NHL, Vesey’s performance has been solid enough that he’ll have a ton of suitors should he hit unrestricted free agency this summer.

Of course, Matt Gilroy also had a large group of suitors and never amounted to an NHL player of any consequence. The Justin Schultz sweepstakes were extraordinarily heated, and as Maple Leafs fans saw on Monday night, he’s still a liability in his own end at the NHL level. You remember Antoine Laganiere? Nobody else does, either. 

Though Vesey has lit up the NCAA over the past few years, he’s done so in his early 20s. He’s not setting the world on fire at a historic rate at a young age like Gaudreau and Eichel did. He’s still very much a long shot to develop into a stud NHL goal-scoring winger. 

The Prospect Cohort Success model produces 75 comparable players – based on age, point production and height – for Vesey’s performance as a junior last season. Of those 75 comparable players, only nine went on to play at least 200 games at the NHL level. Vesey’s 12 percent PCS score isn’t particularly auspicious and neither is the fact that the most recent successful comparable player is Jeff Halpern, whose age-21 NCAA season occurred in 1997 and who carved out a lengthy NHL career by being a faceoff ace and penalty-killing specialist. 

There are only three college players whose age-21 seasons profile similarly to Vesey’s since 2000: Mike Bishai, Brandon Bochenski and Jeff Legue, and none of them made a significant NHL impact.

Based on Vesey’s pace this season, the PCS model only produces 20 comparable age-22 campaigns. Three of those 20 players went on to appear in at least 200 NHL games, but none of those comparable age-22 campaigns occurred in the last 20 years. The PCS model actually produces former Maple Leaf John Pohl as the most recent comparable for Vesey’s age-22 NCAA campaign, which should underscore how difficult it is to successfully make the transition from dominant NCAA scorer to everyday NHL player.

Conclusion

Vesey is an intriguing prospect, and a player whose name you’re likely to hear with increasing frequency in the months ahead. 

Expect the Predators to put on a full-court press and attempt to get Vesey inked to a two-year entry-level contract once the Harvard Crimson’s season comes to an end. If Vesey does sign with Nashville, he’ll probably appear in a small handful of NHL games this season, as the Predators happily burn the first year of his ELC. 

If, at the end of the Crimson’s season, Vesey withdraws from school, that’ll be the sign that he intends to hit unrestricted free agency. When that news break, you’ll know the Maple Leafs (and every other NHL team on the continent) will plan on being aggressive in their pursuit of the 22-year-old winger. The club may even look to do a conditional deal similar to the one they executed with the Florida Panthers for Hyman last spring.

If we suppose that Vesey hits unrestricted free agency though, Toronto will be widely thought of as the front runner though Vesey will likely hear pitches from a variety of NHL clubs as he goes through the unique process of being a 23-year-old unrestricted free agent.

Though Vesey is a long shot to develop into the sort of NHL scoring winger that he’s been at the NCAA level, he’s a decent lottery ticket and one that can be added to the club’s prospect war chest without any acquisition cost. For a team in the accumulation phase of their rebuilding cycle, like the Maple Leafs are, that’s a nice piece to add.

There’s a reason, after all, that the Maple Leafs have been aggressive in their pursuit of pieces like Hyman, Vesey and Nikita Zaitsev. In hoping to build an eventual contender without going through the process of intentionally losing games, the Maple Leafs can’t afford to leave any stone unturned. 

  • SEER

    If we can sign Vesey & Zaitsev like we signed Soshnikov that will be 2 more assets we get without having to lose any of our Prospects or players. I love what the MapleLeafs are doing.

  • SEER

    Vesey was impressive at Preds development camp this summer, which he has attended the last two camps if i’m not mistaken on his own dime. By all accounts Vesey has been impressed with the Preds organization and their handling of him while he finishes school. Anything can happen, but it seems the Preds have done and said all the right things.