August 15th is 40 days away. For the uninitiated, that’s when NCAA players who have passed their period of eligibility without signing an NHL contract can test the market as unrestricted free agents, forgoing the draft rights obtained by their first team years ago. The Leafs are expected to lose a player this way this year in Tony Cameranesi, though the fact that he was released from his Amateur Tryout after just a few games with the Marlies this spring shows that they probably aren’t fussed about it.
But many expect them to gain one right back in 2015/16 Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey. Many have talked about this as an inevitability for months, but it might be time to pump the brakes on that idea just a little bit.
In a situation like this, there are a couple of core pillars that matter to a young free agent. Opportunity, loyalty, familiarity, and money. We assume the familiarity part is there for family reasons. Jimmy Vesey Sr. works for the Leafs as an amateur scout and his younger brother Nolan was drafted by the team in 2014. But I’m not so sure that the Leafs are in a prime situation in other regards.
For starters, let’s look at opportunity. There’s a real chance that the Leafs could be a half-decent team next year, but half-decent doesn’t win you a Stanley Cup and it’s also, for the most part, still a hypothetical. This is still a team that finished 30th, and that’s only worthwhile to a player when there’s a lot of room for them.
A look at the Left Wing, his natural position, shows that room might not be something the Leafs have a ton of. James van Riemsdyk will safely control the top line, but after that, it’s going to get very competitive. If Milan Michalek gets healthy (unlikely, I know), he’s a relatively dependable scorer. Colin Greening is a play driver even when he fails to score. The Leafs aren’t going to bench new signing Matt Martin, who should provide a skilled line with a puck recovery boost. Kerby Rychel plays on the left side primarily, and could compete for a spot.
This isn’t like when Tyler Bozak signed here, and his competition was a pre-breakout Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell and Matt Stajan. Vesey has a lot of fellow Left Wingers with established skill to play against, and his upside isn’t as abundantly obvious as those who want him to suggest. He has offensive instincts, but scouts have wondered about his two-way game. He’s not undersized, but 6’1 isn’t all-out “big power forward” territory either, especially when he isn’t overly physical. He finished 17th in points and 8th in points per game in the NCAA this year, but also did so as one of the oldest players on the list. Undrafted seniors like Andrew Poturalski and Zach Lynch, who outproduced Vesey on a per-game basis, struggled in the AHL this year. Not to say that getting a free prospect is ever a bad thing, but the odds of him dominating from the start are slim and the Leafs have a boatload of hungry left wingers to chase him.
Loyalty is a wash here. The Leafs don’t have anything to work with here, other than the fact they haven’t fired his dad and traded his brother yet. Then again, only two teams can really plead a case on this point, so that might not be a problem. Money, on the other hand, could be. As our very own Ryan Fancey pointed out today, Lou Lamoriello is notorious for minimizing performance bonuses on entry-level deals, to the point of reportedly nickling-and-diming Auston Matthews, who is a near-lock to be worth well over the max price of an ELC. Combine that with a risk of losing out the training camp battle and playing for $90,000 on the Marlies instead, and it’s hard to think that Vesey would pick Toronto for financial reasons.
With all of this considered, you can’t help but wonder if there are better options for him.
If Vesey wants to play for a top team with the expectation of sticking in the lineup, the Chicago Blackhawks would probably be a good fit. They’re always looking for replaceable entry-level players to plug into the bottom of the lineup and are typically inclined to keep him on the NHL roster as long as they contribute. Stan Bowman has been reported to be watching him play summer league games, meaning that some form of interest should be expected there.
If he wants familiarity, there’s a case to be made for not having to move anywhere and heading to the Boston Bruins. They’ve got the cap room to make it work, and only have Brad Marchand and Matt Beleskey up with the team as far as pure left-wingers go right now (though I assume there will be some shuffling of other forwards).
If he wants loyalty and a little bit of all of the four pillars, what about the Buffalo Sabres? They showed commitment by trading for his rights in June, in order to get two months to speak to him. They’re offering familiarity in having his close friend Jack Eichel on the team (Eichel, by the way, scored 55 points last year after outscoring Vesey by 23 points while five years younger; keep that in mind when projecting). As we all know, they also have all that mad Terry Pegula money to work with; they can’t really outbid teams with it, but they’re also almost definitely going to give him the max and give him the minutes to let him chase his bonuses.
As crazy as it sounds, it’s hard to rule the Nashville Predators out of this race either. Yes, he waited out the clock on them in order to test the market, and yes, they eventually decided that there was nothing left to prove to him and traded his rights. But letting other teams make their pitches doesn’t necessarily mean that he wanted nothing to do with Nashville. The Steven Stamkos saga is a great example; he signed a second contract with Tampa Bay that got him as close to UFA as the Lightning would let him, made it all the way to the negotiation window and in-person meetings, and then decided that familiarity and opportunity to win immediately meant more to him.
Vesey is familiar with Nashville’s staff, aware that they invested a lot of time into making him feel comfortable, and they still have $8.1 million in cap space to burn. Oh, and they’re going to be very, very good. The PK Subban for Shea Weber trade is a huge upgrade to their defence, the ever-lasting YoYo of Pikka Rinne implies that this should be one of his good years, and both Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen are only going to get better as they enter athletic prime. If Vesey is what Nashville thinks he is, he’ll be on their second line behind James Neal and ahead of Viktor Arvidsson.
Nolan Vesey on his brother: “Jimmy’s going to make his own decision. August 15th comes around and he’ll make the best decision for himself.”
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) July 6, 2016
Ultimately, the Leafs are banking on Vesey to either have extreme patience or to be so tied to his brother and father that he’ll make the decision to come here. But that might not be the wisest move. If Lou is on the case, the money won’t be there. If trades don’t happen, he’ll have a ton of competition to deal with in September. He’s got no connection to the team beyond the employment of his family. Given that scouts can be dismissed on the drop of a hat and that Nolan’s performance has given us absolutely no reason to believe the Leafs would use a contract spot on him when his time comes, that might not mean much either.
I’m not saying that he shouldn’t pick the Leafs, or that it would be a bad idea for the Leafs to bother trying; he may still have other reasons to believe this is the right fit and the team might have enough reason think he’s clearly better than those fighting for spots and, as such, might promise him the minutes. But there are a lot of viable candidates out there; it’s far too early for people to believe that these sweepstakes are in the bag. Strangely, this has become a situation where the later it’s gotten, the earlier it’s become.