Jimmy Vesey was barely on the ice for his first shift Thursday night when boos cascaded from a KeyBank Center crowd that needed to unleash its frustration. The first quarter of the season was long and difficult for the Sabres, and Vesey was a guy who could have eased the pain.
Whether or not it was circled on his master NHL schedule, Vesey anticipated his first game in Buffalo. He’s no dummy. He expected a chilly reception Thursday after signing with the Rangers over the summer, months before he assisted on Rick Nash’s second-period goal in the Sabres’ 4-3 victory.
“To be honest, I heard the boos, but it took me a second to realize they were intended for me," Vesey said in a quiet visitors' dressing room afterward. "It’s not a big deal. After the first shift, it was nothing. Fans seemed to be pretty into it. It was the first time. Hopefully, it will subside. It didn’t bother me.”
Actually, it could get worse in the weeks ahead.
The Rangers play in Nashville on Dec. 17, and fans will be waiting for Vesey in Music City after he refused to sign with the Predators. He knew people would be insulted in Boston, Buffalo and beyond. Twenty-nine teams would have been offended if all that desired his services actually threw their helmets into the ring. More than a half-dozen teams showed enough interest him for him to return the favor before he signed with the Rangers.
“At the end of the day, I made a decision,” Vesey said earlier in the day. “I might have pissed some people off, I guess, but that was never my intention.”
Jimmy Vesey’s intention was doing what was best for Jimmy Vesey. It hardly placed him in select company and certainly was no crime. Looking out for No. 1 has become Priority No. 1 in this country and isn’t limited to pro athletes. Just know, in this case, his decision to sign with the Rangers wasn’t about money.
He had a max rookie contract locked up no matter his address. He wasn’t looking for the biggest deal in terms of money but the best fit in terms of comfort. He played the cards in his hand. He stumbled across a deck stacked in his favor and made the most of whatever leverage he had.
How can you blame him?
Why would you boo him?
This will be a challenge for some in our hockey-obsessed community, but try removing your blue-and-gold-colored glasses and Sabres’ hat and replace them with corrective lenses and a thinking cap. Disregard your allegiance, dismount your high horse and put yourself in Vesey’s skates.
You're 23 years old, fresh out of Harvard, extraordinarily smart, freakishly talented and in high demand. After combing through in your resume, companies are climbing over one another for you to join their firm and will pay the largest salary allowed given your ability and experience.
“No matter what team you go to, you’re betting on yourself,” said Kevin Hayes, his childhood friend and Rangers linemate. “No matter where he decided to go, it was going to be a pretty similar situation.”
Hayes was an authority on such matters. Two years ago, four years after the Blackhawks selected him in the first round and failed to sign him, he also became a free agent and joined the Rangers. The 6-foot-5 center played between Vesey and Nash on the second line Thursday.
Vesey knew his dollar would stretch farther in Buffalo than New York, but the money didn’t matter. Someday, he’ll have more than he can count. The 6-foot-3 forward pocketed more after signing his first contract than most Ivy League classmates will make in a year and, in many cases, in a decade.
Pretend you’re Jimmy Vesey.
What would you do?
He could have stayed in Boston, not far from where he attended high school and even closer to where he attended college. He would have been surrounded by family and friends in a terrific hockey town. For a kid raised in New England, it doesn’t get much better than suiting up for the Bruins.
Vesey could have played in Toronto. The Maple Leafs hired his father as its Boston-based scout, and it would have been cool for them to work in the same organization. Jimmy would have joined other prodigies starting at the ground floor with hopes of restoring greatness in the Centre of the Hockey Universe.
Buffalo offered gobs of ice time but little immediate success. The Sabres were so unstable in recent years that ownership and management surrendered and started over. They were hoping Vesey and players like Vesey would eventually lead them from the depths of hell, a tall order.
Vesey wanted to leave the nest in Boston, so he scratched the Bruins from his list. He decided to surround himself with better, more experienced players and turned his attention away from Toronto. He could have played for Buffalo, but it was a shaky outfit that offered nothing more than the others.
Chicago was interested, but the Blackhawks play once a year in Boston and only a few games a year on the East Coast. Nashville drafted him and promised him the world, but it became evident Vesey would become an unrestricted free agent.
Fans can disagree with the rule that allows players to become unrestricted free agents if they remain unsigned four years after they’re drafted. They should save their anger for the system in place, not players exploiting its defects.
“Everyone has their own opinion on it,” Vesey said. “I talked to my agents and my family and we thought it was the best decision and route to go.”
Vesey examined all options, weighed all variables, sat down with people he respected, trusted his instincts and used his noggin. Plus, there was the Chris Drury factor. He revered the Rangers assistant GM, a New England icon who led the Sabres to the conference finals two straight years. Drury convinced Vesey to sign with the Rangers.
In the end, it was an easy decision.
The Rangers gave him the best of everything. He could enjoy the bright lights of Broadway, play half the games in Madison Square Garden and still walk Manhattan’s streets in relative obscurity. He could learn from the best and contribute to the team without carrying the weight of a savior. He couldn’t go wrong.
Vesey owed the Sabres nothing. They traded a third-round pick for the right to speak to him, which was their prerogative. They spoke. He listened. The Sabres never really had much chance. Their only connection was Jack Eichel, who didn’t choose Buffalo so much as accept Buffalo after the Sabres chose him.
“He made his decision,” said Eichel, who had two goals Thursday to lead the Sabres. “Original Six team, the New York Rangers? I mean, can you blame him? Obviously, I would have loved to have him here, but he has to worry about himself, not everybody else. You have 30 job opportunities. Why would you limit yourself to one? You pick the best one. Put yourself in his shoes.”
Vesey made the right choice. The Rangers were happy after seeing him with eight goals and 15 points in his first 25 games. The Rangers have a 16-8-1 record to lead the Metropolitan Division. They also were leading the league in scoring with Vesey, not because of him.
The Sabres have a 9-9-5 record, are last in the Atlantic Division and last in the league in scoring. Vesey signing with Buffalo made sense to fans, but it didn’t make much sense to him. The Sabres are left to imagine what could have been. I’m sure fans will remind him whenever they get a chance.