Quick Shifts: Why Jimmy Vesey chose the Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs forward Jimmy Vesey discusses his first impressions of starting on a line with John Tavares and William Nylander at training camp, already sensing good chemistry.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Only four more sleeps….

1. Before he made it to the National Hockey League, young Jimmy Vesey from Boston had only worn two sweater numbers his entire life.

No. 8, in honour of his dad, Jim, who had a 15-game cup of coffee in the League before his Toronto Maple Leafs scouting job.

And No. 19, in honour of his boyhood hockey hero.

Born into a hockey family, Vesey wasn’t far removed from his fourth birthday when the Boston Bruins selected Joe Thornton first overall in 1997.

Funny how life works.

Thornton is certainly the one snagging the headlines ahead of the new Maple Leafs’ television debut Saturday (best ratings for an intrasquad scrimmage ever?), but he’s not the only top-six left winger who came to town with something to prove.

Vesey, 27, says he’s in awe around Thornton.

“Just to be on the same team as him and see him on an everyday basis, it’s unreal,” Vesey says.

“I try not to act like an idiot in front of him. He commands a lot of respect. I’ve been quiet, just observing him and kind of learning as much from him as I can.”

Don’t meet your heroes… unless they’re comfortable singing Britney Spears at the top of their lungs touring around the Swiss Alps.

As is the case with fresh recruits Thornton and Wayne Simmonds, who will both start on Toronto’s top power-play unit, Vesey ($900,000, one year) is being paid more in opportunity than cash.

Slotting to the left of captain John Tavares and William Nylander — two guys who combined for 57 goals in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season — Vesey will have every chance to rebound mightily from him ho-hum, nine-goal effort with the Sabres last year.

Especially when you consider the Thornton-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner line should draw the opposition’s best defenders.

“Anytime you step on the ice, there’s going to be skill on the ice with you,” says Vesey, who saw the Leafs’ trading of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen as an opening to make an impact. “That was the biggest thing for me — just having a chance to play.”

Vesey admits he didn’t adjust smoothly enough after getting dealt from New York to Buffalo in 2019, his first off-season switch. He vowed not to make the same mistake twice.

So, Vesey relocated to Toronto on Nov. 1, shortly after signing, and began pouring in one-on-one work with the Leafs’ skating, strength and conditioning coaches.

“I’m feeling really comfortable right now,” Vesey says.

Coach Sheldon Keefe credits Tavares for assisting in that regard, as the captain is helping tutor the Harvard grad in life as Leaf.

“A very cerebral player,” Tavares notes. “He has a knack for finding the (key) areas. He has a great release around the net and offensive instincts.”

Morgan Rielly has been impressed with Vesey’s conditioning and effort thus far. But 10 months is long layoff between NHL games.

“He’s playing with Johnny right now, which is awesome for him. I think they’re gelling well, so it’ll be interesting at the start for all these guys that have played in a while,” Rielly says.

“He’s right in that bag where he’s really motivated to get going. He’s been here trying to prepare for this for a long time, so it’s great to see.”

In Toronto, Vesey will wear 26, his first NHL digit in New York and the same number on his back when he won gold at the world juniors with Team USA in 2013.

“Feels good to be back in it,” he says, “so I’m hoping it bodes well for this year.”

2. Quote of the Week.

“The secret to the success is three things. It’s an understanding wife, a loyal dog and one hell of a goalie.” — Stanley Cup champion Jon Cooper, on his coaching principles

3. In hockey more than any other sport, the formal anointing of leadership is both intriguing and weighty.

A short thought on the NHL’s three new captains, each of whom replaces a longstanding, respected veteran who left in unrestricted free agency:

Boston Bruins: Patrice Bergeron
No brainer. Love that Don Sweeney had some fun with the announcement, stitching a “C” a Brad Marchand’s sweater to troll Bergeron. “You can’t see, but I’m smiling right now,” Bergeron told his teammates, through a mask, when he accepted his new honour.

Minnesota Wild: Jared Spurgeon
That it is the 31-year-old defenceman inheriting Mikko Koivu’s captaincy — and not Zach Parise, 36, or Ryan Suter, 35 — is an indication that Bill Guerin is passing the torch.

St. Louis Blues: Ryan O’Reilly
Hard to argue against a thoughtful workhorse and a Conn Smythe and Selke winner as your pick. This is only O’Reilly’s third season as a Blue. Long-serving Vladimir Tarasenko expressed disappointment in not getting the honour. Reportedly, the idea of installing a rotating captaincy was discussed between GM Doug Armstrong and coach Craig Berube before deciding on O’Reilly.

Five teams are set to enter 2020-21 with a vacant “C”: the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights, who have never named one.

4. A sixth squad, the Chicago Blackhawks, is entering the season without the league’s second-longest-serving captain, Jonathan Toews, due to personal health concerns that have left him “feeling drained and lethargic.”

Toews is precisely the type of personality you want around, helping shape the young wave of Hawks. And in a cruel twist of irony, this season will be conducted under the type of baseball-style travel schedule the environmentally conscious Toews pitched back in October of 2019.

It’s not as if Toews wasn’t making an earnest effort to come back and build upon 2019-20, during which he was on pace for his 13th 20-goal season.

He was part of those exclusive pre-camp Arizona training sessions for the elite, sharpening his sword alongside the likes of Matthews, Connor McDavid and Anthony Duclair.

“He kind of mentioned some stuff a little bit. It’s his privacy, and I’m definitely going respect that,” Matthews says. “The type of player and person that he is, what he’s done in this league, health comes first. I just hope he gets healthy, he gets back to being 100 per cent… I just hope for the best for him.”

The league is much better with Toews — and Henrik Lundqvist and Corey Crawford — in it.

5. Another star who was holed up in the desert lab with McDavid and Matthews?

Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, last seen riding the trade rumour mill like a state fair Ferris wheel.

With GM Bill Guerin doling out a juicy off-season contract extension to Jonas Brodin, the Wild now have three defencemen with full no-move clauses (Suter and Spurgeon are the others).

This leaves Dumba as a potential candidate to be exposed (and swiped) in the Seattle expansion draft.

“It’s something at first you get kind of worked up about it,” Dumba told reporters. “You’ve been in Minnesota so long and thinking about change scares you. This is where I want to be. I don’t want to move nowhere.”

Dumba conveyed that message to Guerin.

“But he also has to do his due diligence and do his job and listen to everything. He wouldn’t be a good GM if he did otherwise, you know? So, we understand that and just the transparency between me and Billy has been good, honestly. I’ve honestly parked a lot of those thoughts, and when I do see (trade rumours), it’s part of the business, right?” Dumba said.

A mature approach.

“For seven years now I’ve been on the block, and I haven’t been moved yet. So, I think I’m good.”

Dumba’s courageousness in the return-to-play bubble — kneeling during the U.S. anthem and delivering a memorable speech condemning racism — reminds us that no good deed goes unpunished.

“I was trying to ship my car down to (Arizona) this summer, and the guy started saying some racist (comments) to me on the phone, saying that I should keep kneeling for my anthem. Didn’t ship my car down. That was a battle I was facing,” Dumba relayed.

Two valets at Dumba’s apartment complex heard the story and offered to drive the car to Arizona.

Dumba’s activism with the Hockey Diversity Alliance and within the Minnesota hockey community won’t slow down.

“I think people know where I sit on this stance,” he said. “My action will definitely speak louder than words in the coming years.”

6. So, Pavel Datsyuk is 42 years old and still killing it at professional hockey.

Reunited with coach Bill Peters, the Yekaterinburg Automobilist captain has already smashed his 2019-20 output, putting up nine goals and 29 points through 35 games. Still magic:

7. The game of chicken between franchise centre Mathew Barzal and Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello is coming down to the wire. If Barzal isn’t signed by Feb. 11, he’ll be ineligible to participate with any NHL club this season.

As our friends at CapFriendly.com point out, the stalemate is reminiscent of the one between the Maple Leafs and star RFA Mitch Marner in 2019. Essentially, if Lamoriello doesn’t sign Barzal by Tuesday at 5 p.m., the cap-tight Isles would need to either clear a large contract off the roster or acquire another LTIR-eligible contract first. And then sign Barzal.

Not unlike Tampa Bay seeking the Marian Gaborik contract from Ottawa.

A couple of LTIR contracts Lamoriello could consider in this case: Anaheim’s Ryan Kelser and Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg. (If there’s a way to squeeze an asset out of this, Steve Yzerman will find it, no?)

Heading into the Division of Death, we don’t like New York’s chances without Barzal, its top point producer three years running. They’ll need to light the odd lamp to go with all that disciplined defence.

“I’m not concerned about the goals,” coach Barry Trotz said this week. “I’m concerned about the wins.”

Our hunch: Barzal signs a bridge deal prior by Tuesday evening and the sides push the big contract tussle down the road.

8. Friday saw a flurry of waiver action as clubs ready their taxi squads and get their ducks in order for opening-night cap compliance.

The deadline for clubs to place players on waivers and have them clear prior to submitting opening rosters (due Tuesday) is Monday at 12 p.m. ET.

Due to all the activity at this time, franchises often try to slip potentially claimed assets through at this time. Who can forget the Maple Leafs losing two goalies, Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard, right before the 2018-19 campaign kicked off?

Question: If you need a second- or third-string goalie, wouldn’t Aaron Dell at $800,000 be worth a flyer if he hits the wire?

9. I have a Big Read dropping Sunday on the culture around NHL dressing room DJs and spoke to a bunch of different teams about the importance of the game-day soundtrack.

Seems to be a hot topic in Leafland these days, as the players aren’t just vying for ice time but Bluetooth time as well.

“We’re having open tryouts right now, so hopefully someone can prevail,” Rielly announced Thursday. “It’s a close competition.”

Marner had the role foisted upon him for at least short spell last season but ended Friday’s Zoom availability by approaching the camera and back-spinning the record.

“The DJ thing? I was never DJ,” said Marner, whose song selections have been chirped from time to time.

If Rielly gets a vote, however, he’s staying loyal.

“I gotta stick with my guy Mitchy,” the D-man said. “I mean, he gets a bad rap, but he’s got decent taste.”

10. Cool new tradition from the world juniors’ final night.

Team captains stood post-game at the red carpet and draped medals around their teammates, one by one. You have to imagine that memory lasting longer for those kids — accepting an award from someone you just went to battle with — than some official in a suit.

Finland’s Anton Lundell (bronze) and Team USA’s Cam York (gold) relished in the task, but slinging silver after silver over the hung heads of his mates looked like a special type of torture for Canada’s Bowen Byram.

When the final runner-up pendant was presented, Byram broke down like a guy who’d survived delivering the eulogy.

On the bright side? This 10-year-old tweet on a 10-year-old Trevor Zegras is art.

Seriously: Kyle Galliver is Biff with Grays Sports Almanac in Back to the Future II.

11. A good friend of mine, Jeff Beer, makes his living covering ads, brands and marketing plans for Fast Company.

When it was announced that the NHL attached sponsors to each of its four new divisional names, Beer tweeted: “Welcome to the Might As Well Have Lit It On Fire portion of the brand marketing budget.”

More than one fan took offence to these new names. But we wonder if these same fans refer to the NHL’s huge New Year’s Day event the Winter Classic or the Bridgestone® Winter Classic.

These tags, like the helmet stickers, are a slick way for Commissioner Bettman to keep sponsors happy in some desperate times. That said, it will be difficult to start removing logos from new spaces once the population gets comfortable with them.

“I was probably one of the guys that was against that kind of stuff for a long time,” says Jason Spezza.

“Due to the circumstances, though, I welcome it. They’re just trying to do their best to make everything whole and to keep those companies happy to support us, and they’ve done a great job of sticking with us through some tough times.

“They’ve done it in a classy way, where it’s not all over the place. So, you welcome it. It’s a difficult time, it’s different times, and if it gets us playing and makes things whole, that’s great.”

Finding new and creative ways to generate revenue has been an important objective for the league with just a handful of teams allowing limited fans. There is a delicate push-and-pull between boosting revenue and messing with the culture of a sport steeped in tradition — and one that loves to market said tradition.

“Virtually every possibility was explored in terms of maximizing revenue,” deputy commissioner Billy Daly told Lead Off. “We’re doing this on a trial basis, a one-year basis because of the uniqueness of this year, and nothing’s been guaranteed with respect to what goes forward.

“We hope we’ve reached a fair balance for this unique year, and we’ll see where we go next year.”

No promises.

12. I’ll never forget a thoughtful dressing-room conversation Zdeno Chara had with a few of us reporters 21 months ago.

“I’m really passionate about the game. I love competing. I love winning. I love creating the camaraderie,” Chara said that day.

“It’s something that’s in me. I’m a proud guy, and I love doing all the preparation for the games, for the season in the summer. I love working out. I love being fit. Live healthy. I’m enjoying it. I’m glad I’m still able to play and be in the league and be part of this great game and playing with and against the best players in the world.”

Am I surprised Chara and Boston couldn’t find common ground? Absolutely.

Am I surprised he found a place to keep skating? Absolutely not.

He just made the Capitals better and the Bruins worse.

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