The moment Jimmy Vesey decided to return to Harvard for his senior year, the ears of 29 NHL teams perked up.
And the Nashville Predators were in big trouble.
It created a dynamic in which, overnight, Vesey went from being the sole property of the Predators to an asset in play — and one that was gradually slipping from Nashville’s fingers.
Predators general manager David Poile believed that loyalty of some kind would still carry the day, and the team would not lose a player who had turned out to be very smart third round selection back in 2012.
Apparently, he was wrong. And not surprisingly, he is ticked.
Nail Yakupov, you’ll remember, went first overall in the 2012 draft and has been mostly a bust. Vesey was selected 65 picks after Yakupov and has been gaining value ever since.
Teams noticed. Some undoubtedly tried to get Poile to trade them Vesey’s rights as he began to score goals at Harvard. But all were restrained by the reality that the lanky winger was Nashville’s exclusive property and that was that.
But when he decided to rebuff all advances by the Predators after his junior season, the opportunists began to circle. Poile will tell you there has been, since that time, all kinds of what he would call tampering with Vesey and his camp; teams whispering sweet nothings, urging Vesey and his representatives to go for UFA status, to at least see what the open market could offer.
Everyone knew what had happened with players like Justin Schultz, Kevin Hayes and Mike Reilly in similar situations. Schultz, in particular, showed the road map. He shunned the team that drafted him (the Anaheim Ducks), and signed with the Edmonton Oilers. Within two years, his salary had jumped from $925,000 to $3.775 million, and now he’s playing with Sidney Crosby and going for a new contract this summer.
Maybe that scenario could have unfolded for Vesey in Nashville, maybe not.
Now, it appears any behind-the-scenes wooing that did go on has paid off, and he’ll be a UFA on Aug. 15.
Within a matter of days last week, according to Poile, it went from all being rosy between the Preds and Vesey to a freeze-out in which the NHL club couldn’t even get a face-to-face meeting.
“It’s a bizarre situation,” Poile said Monday night, while saying he still wants to sign Vesey. “This is the first time I’m going to say this in my career as a general manager: I clearly believe Jimmy has received bad advice and bad counsel. A player usually goes to free agency to increase his leverage and benefit financially, and that will not be the case here.”
Poile’s been an NHL general manager since 1982 and has had his heart broken before, most recently by Ryan Suter’s decision to leave Nashville as a free agent four years ago. But he seemed genuinely shocked by these recent developments — incredulous that Vesey would choose this route rather than take his place on the Predators' top two lines.
The clause in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement that allows U.S. college seniors to choose free agency is a bit of a quirk in the system. A player drafted out of the Canadian Hockey League as a junior, by comparison, goes back into the draft after two years if he doesn’t sign with his original club.
Drafting a player heading for college actually gives an NHL team valuable extra time to watch him develop before having to commit to him. A good example would be the Calgary Flames, who made Mark Jankowski the highest drafted player ever out of a Canadian high school back in that same 2012 draft that Vesey was picked. Jankowski went 21st overall, enrolled at Providence College, grew to a strapping 6-foot-4, was part of a national champion last year and scored 15 goals in 38 games this year.
Now, the Flames want to sign Jankowski, and indications are that they will. They wouldn’t have had that same luxury of four years of observation if, say, they’d drafted him out of Red Deer or Rouyn-Noranda.
It usually works in favour of the teams, as it did with for the New York Rangers when they signed forward Cristoval "Boo" Nieves after his four-year Michigan career ended on Saturday evening.
Often, NHL teams choose to take no chances and sign players after their junior year, which is what Nashville attempted to do with Vesey.
But every once in a while, this nice little draft arrangement goes inconveniently awry, and that’s what has happened here. A quarter century after Eric Lindros said no to Quebec, there are many still in the game who bristle when somebody bucks the system.
Schultz was a hot commodity as a free agent, but Vesey, a goal-scoring winger, is likely to be hotter. Dulling the market to some degree could be the belief by some that the fix is in and he’ll sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who may have started laying the groundwork for this day by drafting his brother, Nolan, back in 2014 and then hiring his father as a part-time scout last year.
Whether it was Toronto or some other team like the Boston Bruins, Vesey’s hometown team, Poile was very aware that other teams were seeking to influence Vesey and his family. But he seemed to believe that fairness would bring Vesey to sign with Nashville.
“Every indication was that he was going to sign with us,” said Poile who was in the stands Friday night with other Nashville executives cheering Vesey on in his final game with Harvard.
The Preds believed it so much Poile said publicly they didn’t make extra moves at this month’s trade deadline in order to preserve a spot for Vesey. Maybe that was also done to exert a little extra pressure on the young man in case he started imagining the benefits of free agency.
Underlying Poile’s disappointment is an apparent belief that there was an obligation on Vesey’s part to sign with Nashville if the circumstances were, in Poile’s mind, ideal.
But what obligation, exactly, does a drafted player have in a system that is heavily stacked in favour of the owners? Aside from negotiating in a fair and honest manner? None, really.
Vesey didn’t agree to be drafted by the Preds. They just took him, exercising their rights under the CBA, and that was that.
They’ve had four years to sign him. They’ve worked with him, invited him to their prospect gatherings, probably reimbursed his expenses. Nurtured him, as it were. He could have been in the NHL last fall, and probably sacrificed a $925,000 salary plus pension and arbitration rights by staying at Harvard.
He was willing to forego some economic benefits to, theoretically, be one of the rare players able to gain leverage as an entry-level performer.
How can you blame somebody for that?
Nashville can portray this however they like. But in the end, we have a player who decided his professional interests didn’t align with the business interests of the team that held his rights for four years.
He sacrificed to gain some leverage, and now he’s using it.