Much has changed since Jimmy Vesey’s celebrated arrival with the New York Rangers six years ago, the winger having spurned not one but two teams to make his way to Broadway as a highly sought-after free-agent prospect out of Harvard.
Back then, it looked as if the Blueshirts had scored a big victory, landing the big forward who piled up 104 points in 70 games over his final two seasons with the Crimson and who appeared to be an NHL top-six staple-in-waiting.
Four teams later, Vesey is back with the Rangers, this time on a professional tryout contract, trying to stick with his original club as a reinvented player and with considerably less hype surrounding his second arrival in New York.
This time around, though, it appears that the Rangers really need Vesey – perhaps more than they did back in 2016.
Circumstance has brought Vesey a golden opportunity, with he and the Rangers being a potentially perfect marriage of recently-minted fourth-line utility player and club that’s trying to replace a similar piece who played a crucial role in its surprising run to the Eastern Conference Final.
Vesey, 29, has so far made the most of his second chance playing on his PTO, delivering impressive efforts in the Rangers’ first two preseason games. That’s why, should he keep it up, he would be the wise choice to make the team over the gaggle of other forwards vying for a roster spot.
Vesey Traveled Long Road Back to Broadway
Vesey delivered two assists and three shots on goal in 19:24 of ice time in the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, a day after scoring a power-play goal and flashing the standout penalty-killing skills he’s developed during his wander through the NHL wilderness in a 4-1 victory over the New York Islanders. While the offense is nice, and something the Blueshirts would definitely sign up for, it’s the latter effort that would make him so valuable to Rangers in 2021-22.
The (somewhat) short version of Vesey’s long trek from MSG and back: He signed with the Rangers after an outstanding college career that saw him win the Hobey Baker Award in 2016, having refused to join the Nashville Predators, who drafted him 66th overall in 2012, and the Buffalo Sabres, who had traded for his rights. However, he struggled to develop his offensive game enough to stick on one of the top two lines in a Blueshirt, and after the Rangers traded him back to Buffalo in July 2019, spent the next three years bouncing from the Sabres to the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Vancouver Canucks to the New Jersey Devils.
It was last season spent across the Hudson River, however, during which the Boston native remade himself as a stalwart on the PK, using his speed and size to give coach Lindy Ruff a surprisingly reliable and disruptive option to deploy when the Devils were short-handed.
“After the year in Canada (2020-21), I took ownership of the fact that I had to reinvent myself as a fourth-line guy who could kill penalties,” Vesey said. “I’m not one for pumping my own tires, but I think I did a pretty good job of that.” (From ‘Jimmy Vesey Reinvented Himself for Second Rangers Act After ‘Miserable’ Career Turn’, New York Post, 9/26/22)
Vesey played 68 games for New Jersey, excelling in that role while adding eight goals and seven assists. Now Rangers fans, who have largely bemoaned the departure of a fourth-liner during the offseason, might have the chance to fall in love with his potential replacement.
It’s yet to be seen how much the loss of Tyler Motte, a salary-cap casualty who ended up with the Ottawa Senators on a one-year contract, hurts the Blueshirts. Motte, one of the two less-splashy trade deadline acquisitions made by general manager Chris Drury in March, turned out to be a revelation for the Rangers, his speed, hitting and aggressive forechecking bolstering the club’s efforts on the penalty kill. Motte’s feisty influence made it difficult for opponents to set up while on the power play, his dogging of the puck in the offensive zone and while teams were bringing it out of their own zone proving be significant contributions as the Rangers came within two wins of the Stanley Cup Final.
Drury and coach Gerard Gallant would certainly like to replicate that element this season. It’s hard to believe that Vesey now plays a similar style, but that is indeed the case. For that reason, it will be difficult for the Rangers to pass on signing him to a cheap contract – one that would likely be close to his $800,000 cap hit from 2021-22 – to keep that facet in place on the roster.
“I know management really valued the role Motte played here. I think I’m of that same mold and can fill that spot,” Vesey said. “I can skate, can kill penalties and I can still score if I shoot the puck.”
Penalty-Killing Prowess Key to Vesey’s Candidacy for Spot With Rangers
If Vesey’s career transformation earns him a job on the roster, though, who is he beating out?
The most formidable candidate would be Dryden Hunt, who has also looked good in preseason after playing in 76 games last season, when he was used up and down the lineup by Gallant. The 26-year-old, who recorded 17 points, is a grinder who hits, works the walls, forechecks and irritates – certainly Gallant’s type of player.
Yet Hunt – to put it as delicately as possible – retains the feel of a fill-in piece. The winger does some good things, but none of them exceptionally. He doesn’t have much in the way of offensive potential, and doesn’t often kill penalties. He’s a decent skater but not a great one, limiting his effectiveness while forechecking. He throws the body around, but his checks aren’t of the teeth-rattling variety that teammates Ryan Reaves and Sammy Blais deliver. He can be annoying to the opposition – just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins – but not enough so to get teams off of their games, in the way Boston’s Brad Marchand or the Tkachuk brothers routinely can.
Put less delicately, Hunt just doesn’t seem to profile as a regular NHL player, even strictly as a fourth-liner.
Vesey, by contrast, seems to have mastered a couple of speciality skills that will be of great value to the Rangers this season – the type of advantage that allows players to stick around the NHL for the longer term. Being able to deploy him on the top penalty-killing unit, perhaps with Barclay Goodrow, would deepen that area of the club and help Gallant lessen the time his top six forwards would be needed while short-handed.
Several Other Forwards Stand Between Vesey and Successful Rangers Return
Vesey still faces a challenging road to a successful return to the Rangers. The front office, likely wanting to keep its available cap space to around the current $1 million so as to allow for greater accumulation leading up to the deadline – as well as being able to make injury call-ups – probably isn’t going to keep a bunch of forwards around just for the sake of doing so.
That means beating out perhaps not just Hunt, but Ryan Carpenter, the center who played for Gallant with the Vegas Golden Knights and who like Vesey is a strong penalty killer, and perhaps youngsters such as Will Cuylle, Brennan Othmann, Gustav Rydahl and Bobby Trivigno.
Right now, Vesey is only a nice story. That story, however, gets much more intriguing should he come full circle and make the team – an outcome that, despite the bevy of options the Rangers have, appears to make the most sense for their 2021-22 roster.
I’m a resident of the Chicago area by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to the Midwest in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.