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Vesey closing in on free agency

The next phase of the Jimmy Vesey Watch opens this week, when the Hobey Baker Award winner becomes an unrestricted free agent and can speak to any team in the National Hockey League.

The Buffalo Sabres have owned the former Harvard University star’s exclusive rights since acquiring them in a trade with Nashville on June 20, but that changes at 12 a.m. Tuesday and Vesey’s camp is expected to talk to perhaps a half-dozen other teams.

The most prominent teams in the mix for Vesey in addition to the Sabres appear to be the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs. Vesey’s camp is reportedly looking to keep the decision down to a small group of teams and not invite discussions from the 15-20 that were reportedly interested.

It has been widely reported across North America for several weeks that Vesey could sign with a new team on Aug. 15 but GeneralFanager.com tweeted a reminder Sunday night that article 8.6 (c) of the CBA said rights for a player in Vesey’s situation are retained “through and including Aug. 15 following the graduation of his college class.” So, in fact, Vesey can only sign with the Sabres on Monday and could then open negotiations with other teams on Tuesday.

Vesey has had nearly seven weeks to sign with the Sabres but he and his representatives have been steadfast in their approach that they would wait until his UFA period before making a decision. And although the likelihood of Vesey signing with Buffalo may be diminished, it’s hardly been eliminated either as the sides have maintained contact.

The Sabres made their pitch to Vesey last month in Boston. General manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma were joined by college scouting head Jerry Forton, who was a Harvard assistant coach when Vesey was a freshman there. A report from CSN New England last month said the Bruins were Vesey’s likely choice but the same outlet pulled back on that report last week and said the favorites were Chicago, New York or New Jersey.

“I told him he doesn’t owe anybody anything,” Murray said after development camp last month. “He went to school for four years and he became a free agent so now he’s got to make the right decision for him. There’s no timetable.

“I felt really good about the meeting. I got great feedback about the meeting but this is his show right now. If he wants to come in here or he wants to reach out to us and have another meeting then we’re there. But for me, this is in his court.”

Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman has been a fixture at Vesey’s summer league games in Foxborough, Mass., where he’s played on a line with Sabres center Jack Eichel. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville also attended one game. In the last couple of weeks, GMs Ray Shero of the Devils and Garth Snow of the New York Islanders have also been spotted watching.

While speculation for months has Vesey staying home to sign with the Bruins, coming to Buffalo to join good friend Eichel or going to Toronto because his father works for the Leafs as a part-time scout, his camp says none of it is true and a decision will be made after Vesey talks to other teams.

“I think there’s a lot of things out there that either aren’t true or people are just searching to say things. We’re still talking with Buffalo, who will be part of this process once free agency happens, if it happens, which I assume is going to happen,” Vesey’s agent Peter Fish told Yahoo! Sports over the weekend.  “Jimmy wanted to go to free agency all along. He wanted to see it through and, so Buffalo has always been a team that has interested him, but he wants to compare with a few other teams once it happens.”

Fish is also Eichel’s agent and it bears reminding that this is not a bidding war. Based on his age, Vesey will get the CBA maximum of a two-year, entry-level deal. He will certainly get a salary of $925,000, a signing bonus of $92,500 and performance bonuses that could take his deal into the $3.7 million range annually. 

Vesey’s decision will be based on several factors. Roster composition and playing role is a big one in the Sabres’ favor, as Vesey could slot directly into left wing on Eichel’s line with Sam Reinhart and get time on Buffalo’s power play. Even though Eichel and Reinhart would be due big money first, Vesey’s second contract would likely not put the Sabres into salary cap jail as it could with other teams if he produces big numbers in his first two seasons.

Chicago is likely to point out how Artemi Panarin came from the KHL last year and became the Calder Trophy winner, something a more experienced player like Vesey could duplicate. The Hawks are also reportedly contemplating a line that puts Vesey with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

The Devils are an interesting darkhorse in the wake of their acquisition of Edmonton scoring star Taylor Hall. Vesey knows Devils assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, a Massachusetts native, and is close friends with Fitzgerald’s son, Casey, a Boston College defenseman selected by the Sabres in the third round of the draft this year.

The Vesey situation has put the summer of the Sabres and several teams into limbo. If Buffalo lands Vesey, it’s likely the Sabres would move into high gear with talks of trading embattled winger Evander Kane. Kane could be attractive to his hometown team, the Vancouver Canucks. If the Sabres don’t get Vesey, they would likely move forward with Kane.

Buffalo has still yet to sign remaining restricted free agents Rasmus Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons. While talks on both fronts are continuing, it’s possible the Sabres could have a move in the offing for Girgensons if they land Vesey.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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