The Buffalo Sabres made a big move Monday to get to the front of the line for the NHL’s top college free agent.
In their first major deal of draft week, the Sabres acquired the rights to Harvard winger and Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey from the Nashville Predators for a third-round pick that will be made Saturday in First Niagara Center.
Vesey, who was drafted by Nashville in the third round in 2012, has declined to sign with the Predators and will be an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 15. The Sabres traded the No. 76 pick to Nashville to earn an exclusive negotiating window with the 6-foot-2 Vesey.
The left winger had 80 goals in four years for Harvard and has plenty of ties to Sabres center and fellow Massachusetts native Jack Eichel.
Vesey, 23, is close friends with Eichel and they are playing on the same summer league team in Foxborough, Mass. One of Vesey’s advisers is Peter Fish, who happens to be Eichel’s agent. Eichel and Vesey played together with Team USA’s bronze-medal team at last year’s World Championships in the Czech Republic.
The Predators were holding a position on one of their top three lines for Vesey to come on their roster for the Stanley Cup playoffs, and were angry when he opted not to sign because they claim he had given them their word that he would join their team.
Vesey is certainly pegged to be NHL-ready and Eichel needs a left winger to join his line along with Sam Reinhart. During his end-of-season press conference, Sabres General Manager Tim Murray said he envisioned that Eichel’s other winger was not yet on the roster, and many observers took that as a reference to Murray’s hopes of getting involved with Vesey.
Murray has a previously scheduled meeting with the Buffalo media Tuesday morning to discuss the draft. In a text message to The Buffalo News on Monday evening, Murray was definitive on where he stands on Vesey: “He fills a top-6 role.”
Vesey had 24 goals and 46 points in 33 games last season in winning the Hobey Baker, given to college hockey’s top player. He was beaten out by Eichel for the Hobey in 2015 when he had 32 goals and 58 points in 37 games.
The Sabres almost certainly feel they’ll be able to sign Vesey long before he becomes a UFA in August. Even if they can’t, they felt giving up one of their four third-round picks was certainly worth the risk to try to grab an elite prospect without giving up real assets to get him.
“It’s been pretty clear since late March that we’re not going to be able to sign Jimmy Vesey,” Predators General Manager David Poile told the Tennessean. “We were fully aware of what the rules are, that he’d become an unrestricted free agent in mid-August, and at that time, we’d receive no compensation of any kind for our investment and our asset. By trading him today, in my opinion, we recouped the pick we used to acquire him.”
The Vesey Sweepstakes was expected to be a major one come August, with the Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs among several teams known to be interested. Vesey’s father was hired last year as a part-time scout by Toronto and his brother, Nolan, was a 2014 draft pick of the Leafs. There has been plenty of chatter about interest in Vesey by the Boston Bruins but the elder Vesey has said he’d prefer that his son not have to deal with the pressure of playing for the hometown team.
Still, even with the Eichel connection and plenty of playing time available, this may not be a slam dunk for the Sabres. Vesey’s camp has been adamant about going the UFA route and agent Peter Donatelli reiterated that for ESPN.com Monday night.
Said Donatelli, “In our opinion, the only thing that has happened is now the Sabres have stepped into the shoes of Nashville for exclusive rights until Aug. 15. However, at this time, it doesn’t change Jimmy Vesey’s intention to become a free agent on Aug. 15.”
Donatelli did not respond to a follow-up email from The Buffalo News.
On locker cleanout day, Eichel was effusive in what he would say to Vesey about what signing with the Sabres would be like.
Said Eichel: “It’s a great future here. It’s a great city to play in. It’s a great team to be a part of. We have a young group that’s headed in the right direction. It’s definitely a hockey city. People care about you here. People would love to have you and it’s a great place to play. ... This is definitely somewhere that would be a great place to play for him. I’ll see him plenty this summer.”
The pick dealt for Vesey’s rights was acquired from Anaheim for Jamie McGinn on Feb. 29. The Sabres still have 11 picks in the draft, including six of the first 99 choices. They are currently slated to pick eighth in the first round.
Shortly after announcing the Vesey move, the Sabres announced a two-year extension with rugged fourth-line forward Nicolas Deslauriers.
Deslauriers will make $775,000 each of the next two seasons, according to Quebec television network TVA Sports. He made $650,000 last year and got a slight bump in salary as a restricted free agent. Deslauriers, 25, had a career-high six goals and six assists for the Sabres in 70 games last season.
The Sabres announced that their home and season opener will be Oct. 13 against Montreal. All NHL teams announced their home openers Monday, with the league schedule opening with four games on Oct. 12.
The complete 82-game slate will be released by the league Tuesday.