What a strangely busy day in Sabreland. Especially when you’re talking July.
Prized free agents, parachutes, private jets. Thursday had all of it.
The development camp continued at HarborCenter, with the kids getting put through the wringer by arduous skating tests and battle drills. I would rather not try skating attached to bungee cords or parachutes but everyone in Blue and Gold was made to do that. You felt their agony.
Just as the first group was hitting the ice next door, Kyle Okposo was up the street for a formal introduction in First Niagara Center. General Manager Tim Murray ducked in, handed Okposo his new No. 21 jersey, stood for a few photos and bolted out the back door. Frankly, it was a little odd but it turned out there was a good reason.
Murray was joining coach Dan Bylsma on an 11:01 a.m. flight to Boston for the Sabres’ first sitdown with Harvard star and Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey. The meeting was expected to include Vesey’s father and his representatives, including Jack Eichel agent Peter Fish.
The Sabres’ roster is filled with draft choices or big trade acquisitions. Captain Brian Gionta chose to play here, in part, because it’s near his hometown of Rochester. Josh Gorges, bless his heart, picked a trade to the Sabres because he couldn’t stomach getting dealt from Montreal to Toronto.
Okposo took the big money – and the potential payoff in the standings some day – when he made his choice. It’s the kind of decision made in this franchise’s favor very rarely in recent years. You have to believe it will work out better, for both player and team, than it did for Christian Ehrhoff, Matt Moulson or the immortal Ville Leino.
The Sabres essentially recruited Okposo and he bought in. Super quickly, too. Former teammates and friends espoused Buffalo’s virtues. So did Murray and Bylsma. So did the Sabres’ $42 million offer, which came shortly after the Islanders simply wished him luck.
Now the Sabres are trying to do the same quick sell with Vesey, although they can’t wow him with money because his max salary and bonuses are all set by the collective bargaining agreement for his entry-level deal.
What would Okposo say to Vesey about choosing Buffalo?
“It’s a little different I think when you haven’t played in the league. In his position, he doesn’t know the league that well and know how it works,” Okposo said. “I would tell him that we’re going to be a good team for a long time and it’s going to be a fun organization to play in.
“When you have the Pegulas at the helm, it’s going to be a great organization. We’re going to be contenders. That’s something that isn’t always there on teams and I know that personally. We went through a rough stretch on the Island. There’s not going to be those rough times ahead. We’re going to be good.”
Vesey has been insistent to every inquiry that he’s taking this to free agency on Aug. 15 and not simply giving in to whatever quick thought he might have to signing up right now to play with Eichel. He did it again late Wednesday night, when NHL.com stopped by his summer league game in Foxborough, Mass.
“I think we have a small number of teams that I think we’ll really be focusing on,” Vesey said. “So, Aug. 15 we’ll start talking to them and see what they say.”
The Sabres, of course, would rather not hear such talk. But unless the kid does a complete 180, and damages his credibility in the process, that’s what’s going to go down.
By virtue of their trade with Nashville for the rights to Vesey, the Sabres get first dibs. And they can go at it for the next six weeks if they so choose. Murray certainly will want to use Okposo’s talk from Thursday, in which the veteran uttered the words “Stanley Cup,” and “raise banners” in one answer to why he chose the Sabres.
But while most of the Vesey talk has centered on the Sabres, Boston and Toronto, why is Vesey waiting until free agency? Likely to see what other offers might be coming his way. The Chicago Blackhawks seem to be a good candidate and it would appear they’re interested after the Providence Journal spotted Hawks General Manager Stan Bowman at Vesey’s summer league game.
The Hawks, of course, got big rewards last year by the addition of Artemi Panarin from the KHL. He ended up winning the Calder Trophy. They’re perennially tight to the cap because of the monster contracts of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, among others, and have needs up front with the June trades of Teuvo Teravainen to Carolina and Andrew Shaw to Montreal.
Vesey would come cheap, at the entry-level maximum of $925,000 plus bonuses. Just like Panarin did. He could contribute immediately and the Blackhawks would give him a chance to play on a Stanley Cup contender out of the gate, rather than going to the promising rebuilds in Buffalo and Toronto or the mediocre Bruins.
Vesey seems committed to waiting until he can talk to any team, not just the Sabres, before making a decision. The Blackhawks – and, potentially, others – have to be hoping he sticks to that stance.
The Sabres’ optimal scenario is a quick decision by Vesey in their favor. You’d hate to think this would go to Aug. 15, the Sabres don’t get Vesey – and were left hamstrung on other moves because they were banking on landing him.
It’s a risky game the Sabres are playing. A kid who has never skated a second of NHL hockey holds all the cards. It has to be an uncomfortable position for Murray to be in. It’s a shame they can’t just tie Vesey to a parachute like the other prospects right now and bring him home.