For training camp this season, the New Jersey Devils have brought in a few players on professional tryout contracts to let them compete in camp and see if they could be good enough to make the team. The one name that jumps out among the bunch is winger Jimmy Vesey, formerly of a few different teams at this point. Despite having been around for a while, he is still only 28 years old and while he has probably defined who he is as a player at this point, he can still clearly contribute at that age, and could do so for more than just this season if everything worked out.
Before getting into what the situation looks like in New Jersey for the Boston native, let’s take a look at his career arc since joining the New York Rangers out of Harvard. Those first three years in New York, Jimmy established himself as a fairly capable bottom 6 winger with some potential to score points while also staying healthy. In those seasons, he produced 0.34, 0.35, and 0.43 point percentages respectively from 2016-2019 while never playing less than 79 games. He was slowly improving his offensive game at that time, while his average time on ice rose from 13:38 in 2016-17 to 16:03 in 2018-19. He did not establish himself as the dominant force that he was at Harvard, but he was a productive NHLer who could help a team win when put in the right position.
His underlying numbers at the time also showcase a player who could contribute against weaker competition but not as a pure driver of play. From 2016-19, his relative Corsi in New York sat at -1.67 at 5 on 5 play, which ranked him 14th amongst all Rangers forwards who played at least 500 total 5v5 minutes over those three seasons. Not a great number, but not awful either. The real problem with that number, however, is that in those years, the Rangers were the worst possession team in the league, ranked 31 out of 31, with a 46.64 CF%. Even New Jersey, a poor possession team those seasons, was over 1% better, sitting in 27th at 47.76%. So while Jimmy’s relative Corsi was not awful, it was a net negative on a team that was the absolute worst at driving play, so that doesn’t say much either. It hints at a player who needs to be sheltered and play against weaker competition to produce the numbers he did over those seasons. However, Jimmy also had a 48.55% 5v5 offensive zone faceoff percentage across those three years, good for 9th among forwards with 500+ 5v5 minutes, so he was not as sheltered as he should’ve been.
After the 2018-19 season, halfway done with a 2 year, $4.55 million deal he signed with New York, Vesey was traded to Buffalo for a 2021 third round pick. This was done to help clear up cap space for Artemi Panarin, which was probably a good move by New York. In Buffalo, Vesey struggled to reach the production he put up in New York. He put up 20 points in 64 games, good for 0.31 points per game, his lowest at that point in his NHL career. His average time on ice dropped as well, hitting 13:48 per game, basically the same as his rookie year. On the positive, however, his relative Corsi rose to positive numbers, sitting at a near-neutral 0.22%, good for 7th among Buffalo forwards that season with 200+ 5v5 minutes. And Buffalo as a whole was significantly better than the Rangers at possession, ranking 19h in the league that season with a 49.13 CF%. So the driving of play was much better that year, a definite improvement, even if his average time on ice and point production fell.
Last offseason, he signed a one year, $900k deal with Toronto, a much more offensively potent team than Buffalo, with the hope that better teammates around him would improve his performance. Sadly, it did not. In 30 games with the team, he produced a measly 7 points, and was only given just over 11 minutes of ice time per game, lowest of his career. This was despite playing the majority of his 5v5 minutes with Alexander Kerfoot and Jason Spezza. His poor production led him to being placed on waivers in March, where he was claimed by Vancouver. The change of scenery, however, was not a positive for him, and in fact he actually played worse there than he did in Toronto. Although he was given more responsibility, in the form of 15:08 of ice time per game, he only managed 3 assists in 20 games played, a very low number for him, especially given his higher minutes. However, it is worth noting that he was a little unlucky in Vancouver, as he managed 26 shots on goal in those 20 games, but got none of them in the net. That is in comparison to the 15.6% shooting percentage he managed in Toronto. Still, it was not a great performance in Vancouver, or last year as a whole.
That brings us to the PTO he is now on in New Jersey. Given the downward arc of his career since leaving New York, he needs this to turn it around and get back to what he was doing in 2018-19 with NYR. Can he do it? Well, it’s not out of the question. However, it will be tough to break into this lineup if he solely plays at left wing, something he has done for his career. At left wing, the Devils have Janne Kuokkanen and Tomas Tatar, who will likely start the year as the top 6 left wingers. Then, they also have both Jespers, and never mind Miles Wood who can play LW. Now, all three of them could play at other positions. Bratt can play at right wing if needed, and Boqvist can play anywhere on the forward line, same with Wood. However, if the Devils want to maximize their productivity, that would leave little room for Vesey to break in.
However, should they want both Bratt and Kuokkanen on the top six, a real possibility, it does leave open a spot for Vesey on the bottom 6 because one of them would have to play on the right side. And if he can stand out in camp, that is not out of the question. When you look at the training camp roster, there are spots at the bottom of the forward corps for anyone who stands out. If you think about it, you have 10 solid spots consisting of Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Yegor Sharangovitch, Janne Kuokkanen, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Tomas Tatar, Andreas Johnsson, Michael McLeod and Miles Wood. After that, you have a large group with Jesper Boqvist who is probably a lock, and then below him the likes of Jimmy Vesey, Dawson Mercer, and Nolan Foote. So Jimmy is most likely fighting for one spot, maybe two. Can he do it? Yes, but he absolutely needs to play well in camp and stand out.
In this case, standing out will mean establishing a strong rapport with bottom six guys like McLeod, Wood, or even Zacha, and then using that rapport to make flashy plays and help to produce points when on the ice. He has established that his possession game is mediocre at best, so if he can just maintain neutral Corsi numbers while standing out whenever possible during shifts, he could end up with a one year deal in New Jersey.
Now, that being said, do I think it likely? Not really. The Devils are a young organization with a handful of up and coming forwards who would all push Vesey out of a job. Foote, Mercer, Holtz, even Boqvist would all either stand in the way of him breaking through, or could supplant him if he does get a spot but doesn’t maintain quality performances during the year. And for a team looking to really reach the next level next year and become a perennial contender, why give a spot to a 28 year old who has proven himself just an ok guy, when you have others in the wings who could end up being a lot better?
Nonetheless, I do wish him luck and hope he succeeds, because that would mean the Devils are getting a quality producer on the bottom six who is good enough to fend off some of the younger guys. And anyone who can do that and keep getting consistent ice time is worth having around.