Earlier this afternoon, the New Jersey Devils did not announce their full roster for rookie camp, which begins tomorrow. They did announce three players who will join the veterans camp on a professional try out (PTO) deal next week. They are Jimmy Vesey, Mark Jankowski, and Tyler Wotherspoon. You may know two of them and perhaps all three if you follow American Hockey League defensemen closely.
Vesey is the most “famous” of the trio. Vesey was a third round draft pick of Nashville in 2012. He was attending Harvard and decided to stay for all four years. Vesey was very good and won the Hobey Baker Award in 2016. He also decided to test the free agent market and did not sign with the Predators. The Preds sent his rights to Buffalo for a few weeks, but Vesey insisted on hitting free agency in August in 2016. Vesey signed with Our Hated Rivals. This was concerning as Vesey seemed to hit the ground running. However, Vesey’s role in Manhattan fluctuated between being a top-six winger and not being a top-six winger. He was ultimately a cap casualty as Our Hated Rivals pursued Artemi Panarin in 2019; Vesey was traded to Buffalo for a second time.
Vesey did stick with the Sabres for 2019-20 and it did not go so well. Not much went right for the Sabres that season. But Vesey did not impress. While his team would create chances when he was on the ice, so would the opposition - and it was not always a favorable difference. Toronto decided to take a chance on Vesey. In March, he was placed on waivers to ease Toronto’s cap crunch. Vesey’s deal was $900,000 so that is how tight things were in Toronto. Katya Knappe suggested that Vesey’s past production would mean he is likely to be claimed. She was right as Vancouver claimed Vesey the next day. She and Canucks fans hopeful for the claim were not right about the production. Vesey put up just three assists in 20 games.
So this is where the 28-year old is in his career. He is now on a PTO with his sixth organization and potentially his fifth that he will actually play for. The expectation would be to shore up the bottom six at left wing. That may be a bit tough as the Devils have Tomas Tatar, Janne Kuokkanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Miles Wood already at left wing. Add Pavel Zacha (who is likely better as a LW than a C), Jesper Bratt (who would be on his “on” hand at LW), and Jesper Boqvist (who can play all three forward positions) to the mix at left wing and it is a crowded position before even considering options from rookie camp. From how I see it, Vesey will need to have a great camp and preseason to be considered. Good luck to Vesey.
Mark Jankowski may have an easier path as a center. Jankowski was drafted by the Calgary Flames in 2012, came up through their organization, and established himself in the NHL back in 2017-18 (72 with Calgary, 6 with Stockton). It looked like 2018-19 would be a break out season as he put up 14 goals and 32 points. 2019-20 was more of a broken season as Jankowski only scored five goals and put up seven points in 56 games. Prajeya Parmar of Flames Nation described his game as “falling off a cliff” after that 2018-19 season and I think that is a fair assessment. So did the Flames management who did not qualify Jankowski as a RFA. Pittsburgh signed him in October 2020 for a season. The good news was that Jankowski was more productive. The bad news was that the low risk signing yielded low rewards as per Garrett Behanna’s review of the player’s season at PensBurgh. The 27-year old is now joining his third organization on a PTO in the hopes of sticking in the NHL.
Jankowski will have a lot to prove as his previous two seasons were not good. While the Devils do need a center, his last season in Calgary and his 2021 in Pittsburgh are not encouraging signs if you think he will be the answer. It could be that he was brought in to help provide competition for Jesper Boqvist and Michael McLeod in camp. Outside of those two and any future signing, there is a center position up for grabs. Jankowski may have the best odds of this trio of making New Jersey just based on the position availability alone. But he will need to really prove it because, again, if he plays like he did in those last two seasons, then I would rather see Boqvist just take the job instead. Good luck to Jankowski.
The least odds would be for Tyler Wotherspoon, a left-shooting defenseman. GM Tom Fitzgerald was quite active this offseason in re-shaping and the team has a glut of young prospects in the AHL likely to show off their improvements in camp this week. There really are not any open spots on defense in New Jersey. However, I do not think Tyler Wotherspoon was brought in to take a potential spot in New Jersey. I think this PTO was made for Utica in mind. After all, Wotherspoon has not played an NHL game since four appearances for Calgary during the 2016-17 season. The 28-year old left-shooting defenseman played a lot for the Abbotsford/Stockton Heat before moving on to the San Antonio Rampage in 2017-18, and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in 2019-20 and 2021. Given his last stop with the Phantoms, I suspect the Binghamton folks saw plenty of Wotherspoon and enough to warrant giving him a look here. The Utica blueline is still very young. While they signed Robbie Russo earlier this offseason, he is a right-sided defenseman. Wotherspoon can be the veteran left sided defenseman should he show up well as a PTO and should he want to sign with this organization. Good luck to Wotherspoon.
For what it is worth, Vesey will wear #16, Jankowski will wear #14, and Wotherspoon will wear #34 in camp per the Devils’ announcement. Lou is not the GM, so these numbers are not really signs of how much or little management thinks of them. It is just something to keep in mind if and when they play in preseason games in a few weeks.
As we wait for a rookie camp roster and the Prospect Challenge, I want to know what you think of the Devils bringing these three in on a PTO. Do you think either of them has a real shot at making the New Jersey roster? What do you think needs to happen for them to be signed by the Devils? Is it not odd to see Vesey with the Devils on a PTO a little over five years after fans of Our Hated Rivals were jubliant that Vesey chose their team? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these PTO announcements in the comments. Thank you for reading.