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Inside the NHL: College standout Vesey has a choice to make

Signing college players, whether they’re your own or free agents, is a much-overlooked portion of team building. The Sabres got into the fray in a big way last week by inking Hudson Fasching and Casey Nelson. Now the NHL is waiting on a big fish: Harvard left winger Jimmy Vesey.

Vesey’s team lost in the NCAA Tournament Friday night and NHL clubs are lining up to see if Nashville’s 2012 third-round round pick will sign with the Predators – or turn his cheek on them and wait until he becomes an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 15 to sign somewhere else.

Nashville can offer Vesey immediate NHL time on the top three lines of a team headed to the playoffs, which would also allow him to burn the first year of an entry-level contract. But what if that’s not his choice?

We’ve seen this scenario play out recently with Kevin Hayes choosing the Rangers rather than signing with Chicago, and with Minnesota defensman Mike Reilly choosing the Wild in free agency last June after deciding against going to Columbus after the Blue Jackets drafted him in 2011.

The hottest Vesey rumor involves Toronto, where Vesey’s dad was hired as a scout last summer. Hmmm. Vesey’s brother, Nolan, was the Leafs’ sixth-round pick out of Maine in 2014. Double hmmm. Vesey is from Boston and the Bruins would certainly be interested as well in the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder, who had 24 goals and 46 points in 33 games for Harvard this season.

Meanwhile, Jack Eichel was a teammate with Vesey at last year’s World Championships in Russia last spring and spent a lot of quality time with him on the flight home, including several hours stranded in the London airport with Vesey and Los Angeles General Manager Dean Lombardi. They grew up 30 miles apart in suburban Boston. And who is Vesey’s agent? It’s expected to be Peter Fish, who is also Eichel’s representative. Uh-huh.

The Predators were expected to move quickly on Vesey, but the team issued a bizarre statement late Saturday night that said "at some point over the next several days" they plan to meet with him. Say what? Vesey has had plenty of time to make a decision about Nashville. If there’s no deal in the next couple of days, look for him to go to free agency and have all kinds of suitors.

The Sabres avoided this scenario with Fasching, who could have stayed another year at Minnesota taking graduate classes. He could have tried to lead the Gophers back to the NCAA Tournament and certainly would have been high in preseason talk for the Hobey Baker Award. Free agency would have beckoned but Fasching said he was all-in to leave college after three years and was bullish on Buffalo.

“I was just really excited to be here and be part of this program,” Fasching said. “That’s definitely one of the major pulls. From the standpoint of my game, I was ready. I had gotten a lot out of college hockey and I think from a development perspective, making the jump was kind of the best option for me to develop my game, get better and continue to grow.”

While the Sabres moved fast on Fasching after the Gophers didn’t make the NCAAs, it was particularly impressive to see them get Nelson signed. The Minnesota State defenseman was considered in some circles as the top undrafted free agent on the college market.

Nelson said things moved at warp speed last weekend. He was at home when he got a call from his agent that his deal was done – and that a car would pick him up in 90 minutes for the flight to Buffalo. Talk about a quick packing job.

Nelson said the Sabres were a team on the rise and he was aware their depth chart on defense was thin. The Sabres promised instant NHL time as well, making them a good choice for a player so highly regarded on the college free agent chart. That’s what this franchise needs at this point in time – players choosing to come here.

“That’s one of the goals of our organization is to be that, to be a place where people want to come and have an opportunity and be a place you want to play,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “It feels good. You look for free agents like this. You seek them out and you want them to come and have the opportunity. Casey is a bit of a late bloomer in his career and his game but he’s an exciting player because I think of the possibilities he could be for our team.”

Season holders get stuck

It’s pretty easy to shake your head at yet another Sabres price increase for season tickets, which will certainly be a precursor to an increase in the already-bloated cost of individual-game tickets as well. The Sabres could have chosen to do their fans a solid and hold the line on tickets like Calgary did, but instead arrogantly took advantage of the over-the-top loyalty of their core fans.

Now, it should be noted there are some asterisks in the Calgary situation. The oil industry in Western Canada is taking a beating and many of the season customers are oil and gas firms. The team is also trying to increase support for Calgary NEXT, its new arena project, and needs as much goodwill as it can find while trying to replace the aging Saddledome.

Speaking of oil, didn’t Terry Pegula once say he would just drill another well to make money if he needed to? Pegula didn’t know what membership in a club meant when he uttered that ill-fated line. There’s too much pressure from other clubs to make the revenue-sharing pool, even if you’re an owner that doesn’t need to dip into it.

Going forward, it says here the Sabres need to treat the season ticket-holders much better. Just about all you get for your loyalty is a discount in the team store and a 2½ percent Sabrebucks rebate. Why are there no giveaways at games? Wouldn’t a Jack Eichel bobblehead night, for instance, have thrilled season seat holders -- and otherwise filled the building on one of those nights the 300 level corners sat vacant?

Other clubs list a litany of benefits for season ticket-holders. Nashville, for instance, offered fans a two-year price freeze for fans who signed up after the last lockout. Washington – the best team in the league – offers a Club Red program full of gifts for season customers with tickets starting as low as $25 per game. Each account gets a free Capitals jacket as well as access to more than 40 exclusive events, some hockey-related and some not. There are milestone gifts and experiences available for ticket holders as they reach each five-year mark of ownership as well.

I have never been flooded with as much disgust from season ticket-holders as I was last week when the Sabres’ announcement was mailed. They’ve been hanging on hoping for the playoffs and many are tiring. My sense is they agree with the notion that next season better end in the playoffs.

One final note: I concur with many who are complaining that the First Niagara Center seating bowl has become a pig sty. The media sits in the 100 level for practice and morning skates, like we do in all arenas, and I have never seen a dirtier seating bowl in prime areas than the one here. The backs of seats are absolutely filthy every day and the concrete flooring is likewise.

It isn’t like that when we go to arenas out of town. I can’t even imagine how bad the 300 level is if the top 100 level seats are left so shoddy. The team needs to refocus its efforts in those areas, as that sends yet another message it doesn’t care about the fan experience.

Then again, if the Sabres cared about the fan experience, they wouldn’t employ one of those abysmal arena hosts too many places use and simply barrage fans with sponsored silliness at every opportunity during games.

Leafs want to add to history

You walk the locker room corridors of the Air Canada Centre in Toronto as I did twice this month when the Sabres were there and it’s like an art gallery. The walls are filled with incredible old photos of the Leafs’ glory days, from the Original Six era to more modern shots of stars like Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. The burgeoning Legends Row statue display outside the building is also spectacular.

It’s bizarre to think that Tim Leiweke, the former president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, said three years ago it would be better to take the pictures down because the team needed to stop living in the past. What a mistake that would have been. Current Leafs management is embracing the past as the team heads to its 100th anniversary next year – even though that also signifies 50 years since the last Stanley Cup victory in 1967.

“We’re all well aware. All of the people that have come to Toronto in the last couple years knew what we were taking on and why we were coming,” team president Brendan Shanahan said recently during the announcement of next year’s Centennial Classic outdoors at BMO Field.

“It’s to eradicate that story at some point, knowing full well how hard it is in this league to win. That’s why we’re here; we’re here to take on that challenge. So we don’t run away from that date. As you see, we don’t run away or hide from the men who have played here and won Cups here. I think you want to draw inspiration from it.”

The Leafs sure do. Their opening video montage on the building’s new Jumbotron is a spectacular ode to their history. A lot of NHL teams, including one we know pretty well, could learn a lesson from it on how to honor the past.

Around the boards

• The stress for teams hanging on in the playoff race is becoming enormous. Thomas Vanek was scratched three games in a row by the Wild, but Minnesota should be able to hold on in the wild-card race because Colorado has a brutal finishing schedule. The Bruins are free-falling while the Islanders, Flyers and Red Wings are all trying to sneak in. The Sabres get a first-hand look Monday night at the pressure Detroit is feeling in trying to keep its playoff streak alive that dates to 1990.

• Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau has some of the most amazing home/road splits you will ever see. Entering the weekend, Gaudreau has 52 points in 37 games in the Saddledome with 23 goals and 29 assists, and also carries a plus-23 rating. So what’s up on the road? In 36 games, he has just five goals, 20 points and a minus-18 rating. Looks like coach Bob Hartley has to find a way to get him better matchups.

• The first roof truss went up last week on the Red Wings’ new downtown arena, which opens in September, 2017 adjacent to Ford Field and Comerica Park as part of an expansive entertainment district. The 20,000-seat facility that will replace outdated Joe Louis Arena is projected to cost more than $620 million. Live construction webcams and video updates are available at


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