The boys from Boston could have played on the same team in the National Hockey League. But Jack Eichel and Jimmy Vesey had different paths to take.
Eichel played one season at Boston University before moving to the NHL after the Buffalo Sabres drafted him second overall in 2015.
Vesey was drafted by the Nashville Predators 66th overall in 2012 and elected to play out his four years at Harvard. When it became clear Vesey was unlikely to sign with Nashville, the Predators traded his rights to the Sabres in June.
Vesey let time lapse without signing with the Sabres, making him a free agent in the summer. In late August he signed with the New York Rangers.
Expect very different receptions for Eichel and Vesey as both make their Buffalo debut this season in KeyBank Center on Thursday night when the Sabres host the Rangers at 7 p.m.
Sabres faithful will likely cheer wildly for Eichel, who plays his first home game after a triumphant return to game action on Tuesday in Ottawa. Eichel, who missed the first 21 games with a high ankle sprain, had a goal and an assist in his first game back.
Vesey, who ranks sixth among NHL rookies with 14 points, will likely hear boos from Sabres fans after the perceived snub when he elected free agency over signing to play in Buffalo.
“I mean, I’m not really sure why,” Eichel said when asked about the prospect of fans booing Vesey. “He was a free agent. It’s his own decision to make a decision where he wants to play. If any of us were in his situation I’m sure a lot would go into a decision like that. Obviously would have loved to have him in Buffalo but he made a decision and obviously he’s happy with that one. Can’t blame a guy for that.”
It’s hard for Sabres coach Dan Bylsma to blame Vesey as well, even though he really wants to.
“I’d like to have ill feelings about Jimmy and the situation but I can’t,” said Bylsma, who coached both Vesey and Eichel as part of the Team USA staff at the 2015 IIHF World Championship. “I had the opportunity to coach Jimmy for a couple weeks in the World Championships and I can’t say I know him well but he’s stepped into the NHL and proven that he is a goal scorer, can be a goal scorer. He’s been a timely goal scorer for them and I think that’s what I knew he was going to be able to do. Now it’s on the other side and we have to deal with him.”
Meanwhile, the Sabres are more than content to have Eichel, who put an exclamation on his return to hockey with two points in the first period on Tuesday.
“You want to be out there and obviously help contribute and feel comfortable,” Eichel said. “I think a lot of adrenaline and energy and pretty anxious to get going. You almost forget about your ankle. It was nice the first couple of shifts to touch the puck and get yourself in the game, get hit a couple of times. I think those are the best ways to find yourself comfortable in a game when you haven’t played in a while. Especially to be able to get a couple of points in the first period, I think you’re able to build a lot of confidence and put any doubt away.”
Eichel’s points are important. In his rookie season he scored 24 goals with 32 assists playing in 81 games. But his place on the team is greater than points. The Sabres’ power play was largely built around Eichel’s creativity and line combinations, with potential matchup problems for opposing teams, were structured with Eichel as a top-two center.
The impact of his return runs deeper than goals.
“It’s tough to really put it to words the trickle-down effect of having Jack back,” Bylsma said. “His skill-set, his speed, what he can do with the puck and the effect it has on everybody else. To say it has an effect on Ryan O’Reilly who he’s not playing with five-on-five is hard to describe but he is.
“He’s had an effect on our players’ creativity. We’ve scored more goals in the last two practices than we had in the 10 before that without Jack. It gives everyone a better sense. They’re in the right spots but they have a better sense of themselves offensively and it trickles down to every player. We’re all benefactors of it.”
Among the benefactors – Sam Reinhart, who gets to move back to the wing alongside Eichel. The two hope to find the chemistry they enjoyed at the end of last season.
“I know my game was changed a little bit and right away we familiarized with each other and it didn't take too much to find each other again,” Reinhart said. “Playing with him changes things a little bit. Especially coming through the neutral zone, there's a lot of swinging and finding lanes. It's structured but a lot of it is just reading off each other.”