The NHL has been abuzz over the past few days since news broke that Harvard senior Jimmy Vesey would opt to go to free-agency this August, rather than sign with the Nashville Predators, the team that drafted him back in 2012. This is a situation that has popped up here and there in the NHL over the years and Vesey is the latest to exercise his option to become a free agent after completing college. Some names in the recent past that have forgone signing with the club that drafted them include Justin Schultz, who had a memorably ugly split with Anaheim, Kevin Hayes, who ended up with the Rangers after being unable to come to terms with the Blackhawks, and Blake Wheeler, who spurned the Coyotes back in 2008. Like the players who went this route before him, Vesey will now have the option to choose from any of the 30 NHL teams this summer when he hits unrestricted free agency.
It's an interesting decision by Vesey and certainly an unfortunate one for the Predators. Rather than signing a young, possibly top-six-caliber forward for their 2016 playoff run and the years beyond, they end up empty-handed, and based on Nashvillle GM David Poile's comments, a bit sore about their predicament. The Predators are upset because they claim Vesey gave them assurances he'd be in Nashville, which altered their trade deadline approach. Vesey's representatives have denied this claim, saying the Predators were told of this possibility before the deadline. Regardless of who said what, though, the bitterness coming out of Nashville is certainly understandable, as the Predators looked to have solid forward prospect to strengthen their team for the foreseeable future and, instead, now have nothing; not even a compensatory draft pick, as those are only given if the player that walks was a first-round pick.
For Vesey, the decision is also an understandable one. Instead of having where he will start his career dictated to him by the NHL Draft, he will be able to sign his entry-level contract (ELC) wherever he pleases in August. That doesn't mean he isn't giving things up to make this decision, though. Instead of burning a year off of his ELC in this season's stretch run by signing in Nashville, he will now start it next season, meaning he will start the clock towards restricted (and unrestricted) free agency a season later, effectively leaving money on the table. In addition to that, he is also passing up a chance to immediately be a part of a playoff run (and a pretty solidly built team) with the Predators in favor of becoming a free agent. Those perks were clearly not enough to tether him to Nashville, though, and he now can pick from any of the 30 NHL franchises when August 15th rolls around.
Vesey In Red and Black?
(I know, I know, but let's at least just entertain the possibility.) So when the Vesey sweepstakes opens in August, there will obviously be a lot of interested parties around the NHL. The Devils will obviously be among those interested parties or at least would be foolish not to be. Few teams around the NHL could use someone like Jimmy Vesey falling into their lap more than New Jersey. The offensive woes for the Devils have been well documented and a player like Vesey could help turn the tide for a team perpetually in need of goal-scorers. With a strong draft, maybe they are a little closer to contention this offseason, but the potential immediate impact of a player like Vesey would help accelerate the rebuilding process. And it would come for nothing more than the cost of an entry level contract. The issue, of course, for the Devils is convincing Vesey that New Jersey is the right place for him.
The possibility of Vesey landing in Newark is, admittedly, a long shot. Boston and Toronto have been installed as the early front-runners to sign Vesey, with a lot of smoke coming from Vesey's hometown Bruins and Toronto hiring/drafting a decent chunk of Vesey's immediate family over the last couple years. To steer the Harvard forward toward New Jersey, Ray Shero would probably need one heck of a pitch. What ammunition does Shero have to convince him though? Well, the Devils are a young team ostensibly on the upswing in the coming years. They have an all-world goaltender, an improving roster, and a solid system that had them beat expectations this season. They can offer Vesey a significant role immediately and have him be a part of the team's core going forward. Vesey's center at Harvard over the past couple seasons, Alexander Kerfoot, is also a part of the Devils organization, so maybe that at least gets them on his radar. Like I said, it would have to be the pitch of a lifetime by Ray Shero but crazier things have happened. I mean, Justin Schultz willingly went to Edmonton a few years back, so anything is possible. Maybe the Devils can find a few Vesey family members to give front office jobs in the meantime.
What About the Devils NCAA Draftees?
The situation with Jimmy Vesey isn't a particularly common one, but it is still enough to make any fanbase nervous about their own NCAA draftees. The Devils don't have anyone who is getting Hobey Baker nominations in their system but they still have a few decent-looking prospects who will be reaching UFA eligibility in the next few years. One of them is the aforementioned Alex Kerfoot, who will be a senior next season at Harvard (assuming he doesn't sign before then). As you might have seen in Brian's prospect update this week, Kerfoot tallied the 6th most assists/game in the entire NCAA this season and could have potential as a playmaker in the NHL. If he has another big season without Vesey on his wing, perhaps he tests the waters a free agency. Unless he has a huge senior season, though, one would think he'd take a contract from the Devils if it were offered.
The other two players to watch are both Boston College products in Steve Santini and Miles Wood. Santini, the well-regarded shutdown defenseman, just finished up his junior season and, like Kerfoot, would become a free agent next summer in the absence of a contract. Santini had some injury woes in years past, but this season has anchored the BC blue line on its way to the Frozen Four and won the Hockey East's Best Defensive Defenseman award. Santini could potentially make the jump to New Jersey this summer though, particularly with some space opening up on the Devils' blue line, which would obviously erase any worries about him ending up a free agent. It could be a nervy spring next year though if he returns to BC for his senior season. The other BC player to keep an eye on, Miles Wood, is a little further away from any free agency worries but even though he is just a freshman, his extra year in prep school means he'd be eligible after his junior season. Wood has had an impressive freshman (though sophomore-ish in age) season at BC, though, putting up about a point per game, so he is someone to keep an eye on over the next couple years.
So I wouldn't put the Devils risk of encountering their own Jimmy Vesey situation very high for now, but any time something of the sort does happen, it does make fans a little nervous for their own prospects. Overall, its understandable that fans and organizations can be left with a sour taste after a situation like Vesey's (or Shultz's, or Wheeler's) but it's logical that the Players Association wouldn't want draft rights to extend in perpetuity. The most reasonable solution probably includes the NCAA allowing players to sign contracts while maintaining eligibility, but that seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Meanwhile, this type of thing happens rarely enough that it doesn't pose a huge problem for the league. Maybe it's something that gets tinkered with in the next CBA (maybe compensatory picks extended to rounds beyond the first?), but for now, the system seems equitable enough. If the Devils lose a big name to this clause someday, though, I reserve the right to be bitter.