Jimmy Vesey is accustomed to the pressure and scrutiny. The 26-year-old winger was detested by fans in Nashville and Buffalo before he ever played an NHL game because he chose to sign with the New York Rangers as a free agent out of Harvard University in August 2016.
Vesey then played three years under the bright lights of the Big Apple, where he reached the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs as a rookie. Yet even Vesey is learning to navigate the pressure-packed situation in Buffalo.
"We’re looking still to find secondary scoring here," Vesey said following practice Monday. "Everyone wants to chip in. When it’s not going your way, it’s easy to try to cheat for offense and just worry about trying to score, but there’s a lot of other areas of the game that are important."
Vesey got lost in his pursuit at addressing one of the Sabres' weaknesses. Cheating for offense made him less effective and resulted in him being a healthy scratch Jan. 12 in Detroit. He has since rediscovered the dog-on-a-bone relentlessness that made him first in line to play with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart when training camp opened almost five months ago.
Now, Sabres coach Ralph Krueger is hoping Vesey can man the left wing on the top line until Victor Olofsson returns from a lower-body injury. The early returns are promising.
Vesey had three shots on goal in 17:56 of ice time in a 2-1 overtime win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. He made precise passes, including one to Eichel in the slot with seven minutes remaining in regulation, and he created chaos by driving to the net. Vesey skated down the left wing and chipped the puck wide on a cross-ice pass from Eichel in the first period.
The Sabres have a 55.28% 5 on 5 shot differential with Vesey, Eichel and Reinhart on the ice together this season, compared to 44.29% when Zemgus Girgensons was on the top line. In addition to being a reliable defender, Vesey had 50 goals, 43 at even strength, during his three seasons in New York.
"It’s always a combination of all the lines and the final picture we end up with, but we feel that Jimmy this time around really is relaxed and just playing his game," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "Seems to be settling in to that kind of a role, where he might have catered a little bit too much to Sam and Jack and gave up his own game. I just think what we saw was something he can build on and we can build on here until we get Olofsson back."
Vesey has six goals with eight assists for 14 points with a plus-12 rating in 48 games. His average ice time (13:43) is the lowest since his rookie season, and he has a career-low shooting percentage (8.3). Vesey didn't score a goal until his 21st game as a Sabre, and three of his six goals occurred in a three-game span from Nov. 25-29.
Earlier this season, Krueger often defended Vesey's production by citing the forward's impact without the puck, particularly on the penalty kill. One mistake illustrated how Vesey was struggling last month and may have resulted in him watching a game from the Little Caesars Arena press box.
During the third period of a 6-3 loss to Vancouver on Jan. 11, Vesey missed a poke check in the defensive zone and was slow to cover Brock Boeser on what turned into a one-timer goal. Vesey was scratched the following day against the Red Wings.
— Buffalo Hockey moments (@SabresPlays) January 11, 2020
Injuries and roster construction have prevented the Sabres from having continuity within their lines and defense pairs. Krueger has used lineups featuring seven defensemen with 11 forwards and six defensemen with 12 forwards.
Vesey wouldn't use unpredictability as an excuse, though. He quickly pinpointed the reason behind his struggles, and he scored in the first period of a 4-1 win at Dallas on Jan. 16.
"The last couple games before break I was really skating better," Vesey said. "I think it’s just sometimes you have to square yourself and get back to the basics, what got you here. It’s such a long season. It can be easy sometimes to let your mind take over. When that happens, when you’re worrying about everything else, it takes away from your game. Just try to put my head down and get back to work, and I think the best thing for me is when I’m skating and moving my feet, that’s when I’m most effective."
Vesey has proven he can be a consistent threat at even strength. His 12.61 expected goals at 5 on 5 last season ranked second on the Rangers behind Chris Kreider. Vesey also logged the third-most 5 on 5 ice time among the team's forwards.
The Sabres' 5 on 5 play has fallen off since Olofsson's injury. Jeff Skinner, one of the NHL's top 5-on-5 goal scorers over the past nine seasons, has logged most of his ice time with Marcus Johansson and Michael Frolik since returning from an upper-body injury.
Skinner has zero goals in his past 14 games, and Krueger has been reluctant to reunite the $72 million winger with Eichel and Reinhart. In addition to Skinner, Johansson and Conor Sheary are marred in slumps. The Sabres have scored two or fewer goals in each of their last four games.
"I think when you get down to this point in the season, teams tighten up," Skinner said. "You have to make sure you’re trying to find ways to bury (chances), but in some situations, we have been generating quite a bit. Now it’s just a matter of finishing those chances that we’re creating."
Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill is scouring the trade market for a forward, particularly one with speed. Botterill already gave up assets for two rentals – Vesey and Frolik, both pending unrestricted free agents – over the past seven months. The former was acquired last July for a third-round draft pick in 2021.
A surge from Vesey could keep the Sabres' season afloat or it could lead to his early exit from Buffalo. He insists he hasn't given any thought to the Feb. 24 trade deadline. His focus is on building off what he showed Saturday against Columbus.
"No, it hasn’t really crossed my mind," Vesey said when asked about the possibility of being traded again. "I’m just worried about the rest of the season with this team. We have 30 games left, and it’s time for us to make a push. Everyone here is buying in. We’re going to dial ourselves in to make a push."