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Few came off well during Vesey Watch

The Jimmy Vesey Watch was alternately baffling, fascinating and infuriating. We’ve really never seen anything like it before and, frankly, that’s probably a good thing. There was a lot not to like in this whole situation.

The Hobey Baker winner finally let the hockey world return to its last couple weeks of summer vacation Friday night when he opted to sign his entry-level deal with the New York Rangers and end four days of nonstop chatter about his status, which followed several weeks of waiting for his free agency period to begin.

The Sabres, of course, had owned Vesey’s rights since acquiring them from Nashville on June 20 and had them exclusively until the clock struck midnight Tuesday morning. They met with him July 7 in Boston and talked to his representatives one final time last weekend but when Vesey became an unrestricted free agent, Buffalo was clearly toast.

It was interesting when Sabres General Manager Tim Murray met the media last month after development camp, pointed out the ball was in Vesey’s court and that the Sabres weren’t going to turn the situation into a circus. Murray kind of had an inkling what this was going to turn into.

The circus tents that surrounded Vesey were pitched outside of Buffalo. The Sabres never really had a chance in this race and, from an outside view, the amount of tampering that had to be taking place in recent weeks looks ridiculous.

Let’s not forget this important point: Vesey was not a free agent until midnight on Tuesday. He was Sabres property until then. But that didn’t stop agents Peter Fish and Peter Donatelli from doing numerous media interviews the last month espousing the virtues of what it would be like for Vesey to play in Boston, or in Chicago, or (hmmm) in New York.

That’s shameful stuff right there. The agents should know better.

Vesey’s summer league games were often attended by NHL GMs, with Chicago’s Stan Bowman a regular attendee. Coach Joel Quenneville hit the Wednesday night circuit in Foxborough, Mass., once too. Yes, the games were open to the public and anyone can say they were there to watch anyone. But come on. The optics aren’t good for the Hawks in this one at all. Repeating: You were watching a player who was someone else’s property and just waiting to pounce. Not cool.

Meanwhile, the Boston media fawned over the hometown boy ad nauseum. But Vesey was probably spooked by the tough treatment given to Bostonian Jimmy Hayes, whose subpar play was worthy of scrutiny, and decided he didn’t want to deal with it.

When the free agency period finally started, teams couldn’t stop falling all over each other to bring out their stars to try to lure Vesey. John Tavares, Patrick Kane, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Auston Matthews were all reportedly involved in person, with Sidney Crosby checking in with Vesey via telephone. For several months, pundits across North America had pegged the Sabres (because of Jack Eichel), the Bruins (because of his hometown) or Toronto (because his father is a scout and his brother was drafted by the Leafs) as Vesey’s ultimate destination. Almost no one pegged the Rangers, which should once again remind fans that so-called insiders are often guessing. That said, it is an admittedly bizarre choice.

New York is a team on the decline and overly reliant on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who will be 35 by the team next season ends. Chicago was trying to make Vesey the next Artemi Panarin. Pittsburgh could use more help on the wings. And Vesey could have been a huge part of what’s growing in either Buffalo or Toronto.

“The thing that jumped out at me was that they came to really want me,” Vesey said of the Rangers during a conference call Friday night. “It seemed that they really needed to have me in their lineup and it seemed that they believe in me. That was something that I was looking for.”

Is he serious? Did this kid go to Harvard or not? What a ridiculous thing to say. Every team Vesey talked to clearly wanted him and had a need in their lineup. How in the world is what the Rangers said to him any different than anybody else?

Frankly, you could make the case the Rangers needed Vesey less than the Bruins or Maple Leafs did, and probably less than the Sabres too.

Maybe this is simply all about Vesey’s second contract, which should be no big deal in New York once the Rangers get Rick Nash’s bloated $7.8 million salary off the books following the 2017-18 season - just as Vesey becomes a restricted free agent and could be in line for his first real deal.

Of course, that presumes Vesey plays like a star who was worth all this summer hype.

Vesey, remember, had 24 goals and 40 points in his first two years combined at Harvard. He didn’t give up NHL money to keep going to school, as you keep hearing on social media. He wasn’t even an NHL prospect when he started his junior year. He was just another kid who had gone through Nashville development camp as a third-round pick.

Vesey blew up in his final two years at Harvard, with 56 goals and 104 points in 70 games. He’s a clear late bloomer, just turning 23, and it’s that potential - as well as the chance to get a guy for the cheap entry-level cap hit of $925,000 for two years - that had teams lining up to talk to him.

Yes, Vesey was using his CBA rights to free agency by going through his four years of school. Fair enough. In this view, he should have signed with the Predators, the team that drafted him and spent a lot of time and money developing him. The Preds were giving him a top-three line spot last spring and into the Stanley Cup playoffs and he turned them down. They will be one of the top choices in the Western Conference this season. Turning down Nashville and signing with New York shows this wasn’t about winning at all.

Who does this kid think he is? He’s not Eric Lindros, who was a No. 1 overall pick. And save for Eichel and Johnny Gaudreau, the list of Hobey Baker winners the last 15 years is littered with mostly nobodies.

And now what happens to future college players? What NHL team is going to let a draft pick play out his senior year? The pressure is going to be immense on kids to turn pro, lest they go and “pull a Vesey”.

Vesey better be a star next season. Good luck to him. New teammate Kevin Hayes and Pittsburgh defenseman Justin Schultz went this route as well, with Schultz getting plenty of hype, too. They’re average players. Vesey better be a lot more than average.

Sabres took good shot

There should be zero issue with the Sabres taking the chance on a third-round pick to get to the front of the line with Vesey. They’re being pro-active in every situation possible. Just since the draft weekend, Buffalo got one of four interviews with the top NHL free agent (Steven Stamkos), signed the next-rated free agent forward (Kyle Okposo) and had first dibs on Vesey. That’s a long way from throwing stupid money at Ville Leino.

Murray had four third-round picks so spending one on Vesey talks is no big deal. The last third-round forward to score a goal in an NHL game for the Sabres was Corey Tropp, and he was drafted in 2007. A third-round pick in the NHL isn’t like a third-rounder in the NFL. It was a good gamble, and the Sabres may have thought Vesey’s connection to Eichel would quickly turn the tide in their favor.

It didn’t happen that way. Both sides said the July 7 meeting went very well but Vesey and his camp were resolute on his free agent wishes.

As coach Dan Bylsma told last month, “He’s got a chance to grow with our group of young players. He’s got a chance to grow with that group and be a great team. I think that’s the best opportunity for him in the league. We liked the meeting we had with him and we explained all that to him.”

Valid point for sure. Vesey simply wasn’t sold.

What’s next for others?

Vesey Watch pretty much ground to a halt the NHL trade market and the rest of free agency. It will be interesting to see now what happens to two free-agent forwards who have been sitting idly.

I’d like the Sabres to take a look at 32-year-old Jiri Hudler, who had 16 goals and 30 assists last season between Calgary and Florida. He had a career-high 31 goals and 76 points for the Flames in 2014-15. A younger and probably cheaper option would be Brandon Pirri, 25, who had 14 goals and 15 assists in 61 games last year for Florida and Anaheim. He had 22 goals for the Panthers in the ‘14-15 campaign.

Not signing Vesey could signal the end of thoughts the Sabres might deal Evander Kane, perhaps to his hometown in Vancouver. The Canucks seem to be the only team that would remotely have any interest in Kane right now, given his current legal situation. The Sabres have two years left on Kane’s deal and might be best served trying to play out the first one and hope he re-establishes some value.

Around the boards

• Look for full practice schedules to be announced this week for the World Cup of Hockey. Eichel and Team North America will be working out in Montreal in advance of their first exhibition game Sept. 8 in Quebec City. Team USA will be based in Columbus while Team Canada will be in Ottawa.

• The Sabres might want to stop pre-scheduling happy birthday greetings on their Twitter feeds. The recent Kane one did not go over well because he was in the midst of his legal entanglements and the team wished former captain Chris Drury a happy 40th on Saturday, with a link to the video of his iconic 2007 playoff goal.

Of course, Drury is now the director of player development for the Rangers and his relationship with Fish was considered one of the key reasons Vesey signed in New York a scant 18 hours earlier and did not come to Buffalo. Whoops.

• There’s a big night coming in Ottawa on Dec. 29, as the Senators have announced they will retire longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson’s No. 11 in ceremonies prior to a game against Detroit. He finished his career with the Wings in 2014 after 17 years in Ottawa. He will be the first modern-era Senator to have his jersey retired.


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