Two teams, down from eight?
That’s how many clubs Jimmy Vesey, the NHL’s most coveted unrestricted free agent, spoke with in-person this week — and roughly that many current NHL stars.
The 23-year-old Harvard graduate began whittling down his list and deciding where he wants to begin his NHL career Thursday. The earliest an announcement will come is Friday, and a flurry of conflicting reports have emerged.
Swallow with a grain of salt, please.
“Impressive meetings with a lot of different perspectives has certainly given the camp a lot to think about,” Peter Donatelli, one of Vesey’s agents, told ESPN’s Joe McDonald Thursday evening.
All eight teams were still in the running, according to the Thursday report, but Newsday‘s Arthur Staple tweeted Friday morning that the Blackhawks and Rangers are the final two standing.
“Everyone is still in the mix,” Donatelli said Thursday. “We’re going to try and drill down right now to a few [teams] and then either call some teams with some questions or not. We’ll probably reach out to a few teams with some questions that we think were either unanswered or we want clarification on, but that’s the intent today.”
Vesey’s other agent, Peter Fish, told WEEI.com Friday afternoon there is “a handful of teams in the mix” and the Bruins are one of them. Claims that this is two-way race between the Rangers and Blackhawks? “Not true,” Fish told reporter DJ Bean.
Vesey entertained offers from the first group of clubs on his shortlist Tuesday in Boston. Day 1 featured pitches from four teams, all of whom leaned on current players as part of their recruitment strategy: the New York Islanders (who brought John Tavares), New Jersey Devils (Cory Schneider and Kyle Palmieri reached out), Pittsburgh Penguins (Sidney Crosby called), and Toronto Maple Leafs (Auston Matthews attended).
“There’s obviously not a lot going on in the hockey world right now, so with Jimmy’s decision coming up and him being a very good prospect, and potentially to really impact the lineup right away because of his age and his skill set and maturity level, he’s obviously a high priority for some teams, and for us, we’re obviously on his short list and have that opportunity,” Tavares told McDonald Wednesday.
“I really believe in our team, and I’m sure they want to show him why we’re the best fit for him and how he can impact our team and make us better, so we’ll see what happens and if we’re lucky enough we’ll be able to get an impact player like him.”
The Chicago Blackhawks (Patrick Kane attended), New York Rangers (Vesey’s workout buddy in Boston, Kevin Hayes, speaks to him frequently), and Boston Bruins — who were granted the last word — made their case Wednesday, which just happened to be Bruins GM Don Sweeney’s 50th birthday.
The Bruins’ pitch involved a tour of their new Brighton practice facility, Warrior Ice Arena, according to the Providence Journal.
“Just ended,” a source involved in the meeting texted the Boston Globe Wednesday evening. “Bruins did very well.”
A final decision on the 2016 Hobey Baker winner’s fate is expected Friday or Saturday.
In addition to the clubs invited to present, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings also reportedly expressed interest but failed to make the cut.
“We did our best,” Red Wings assistant general manager Ryan Martin told MLive.com. “We spoke to his agent about depth and opportunity. He said he preferred to play closer to home.”
So, where will the potential top-six winger land?
The Chicago Tribune reported that the 2015 Stanley Cup champions are hopeful to land the Harvard graduate. GM Stan Bowman scouted some of Vesey’s skates in Massachusetts this summer in person.
The Penguins, coached by Boston-area native Mike Sullivan, present the kid with an opportunity to flank an elite centre such as Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and play for a championship club. A sticking point here: Pittsburgh currently sits $3.3 million over the salary cap.
Vesey’s hometown Bruins and the rich and rebuilding Maple Leafs have long been thought to be front runners for Vesey’s services.
With money not a massive concern for an entry-level contract — even if Vesey maxes out his performances bonuses, he’ll make under $4 million per year — other factors play big: geography, role, personal connections, and championship chances.
Vesey has friends on the Rangers (Chris Kreider, Hayes) and family in the Maple Leafs organization (father Jim is a scout and brother Nolan is a prospect).
“I’ve said it all along that Boston is definitely on my list of teams that I’d like to talk to,” Vesey, a massive Joe Thornton fan as a kid, told CSN. “It’s a team that I’ve rooted for all my life, and it’s a team that I watched win the Stanley Cup in 2011. I’ll definitely be meeting with Boston in August.”
It’s the Sabres, however, who have been the most aggressive in pursuit.
Buffalo traded a third-round pick to Nashville on June 30 in order to gain an exclusive 45-day negotiating window with the 23-year-old, who has been steadfast in his intent to explore the open market.
Sabres GM Tim Murray met with Vesey’s camp shortly after the trade and reportedly made one more last-minute bid before Vesey became free game at 12 a.m. Tuesday.
“I can tell you from Buffalo’s standpoint, Jimmy is pleased with what they’ve done and said thus far,” Fish told the Associate Press. “I would say the earliest [a decision is made] may be Friday or Saturday, but I wouldn’t expect it to drag on much into the following week.”
“He’s not the type of kid who enjoys necessarily being talked about all the time. He’s a good teammate, he’s a good kid. He’s pretty quiet and quietly goes about his business as a hockey player,” Fish told Puck Daddy Saturday. “He’s not afraid of the spotlight or anything like that. He’s a kid that probably prefers to fly under the radar a bit.”
That certainly isn’t happening this week.