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The UFA college hockey prospect everyone’s been talking about since he spurned Nashville for reasons yet unclear will finally be on the market Tuesday. As you might expect, rumors have been flying about where he’ll land some time, but have really heated up in the past few days. And while it’s always good to get an asset that’s almost certainly a useful NHL talent for nothing but the cost of his ELC, one question hasn’t really been asked by a lot of people.
What kind of player is Jimmy Vesey?
When you hear talk of just about any prospect, the concentration is perhaps understandably on his “ceiling.” That is to say fans want to know what a player “could be” and not necessarily what he “is.” It’s the ceiling that fascinates because people like to think every player their team drafts or signs is going to max out their potential. We talked about it last week with the Vancouver Canucks: There is a tendency to overestimate what a player is going to do for a club, sometimes dramatically, just because it’s a lot nicer to think about that than the alternative.
This is certainly the case whenever someone like Jimmy Vesey comes along. People who have never seen him play a game assume that just because he’s a highly sought-after free agent, he will soon become one of, say, the 100 best forwards in the league. The reality is quite different of course. As I’ve said before, Vesey is a guy I’ve seen a bunch of times over his last few years at Harvard, and while I think he’s pretty good, the hype train here is getting out of control. The teams rumored to be targeting him may not be able to reasonably justify actually using him in their top-six in part because a lot of those teams are pretty deep up front (Chicago, Boston, New York, and even Buffalo), or at least deep enough that a guy like Vesey isn’t a guaranteed second-line forward.
The thing to keep in mind about Vesey is this: He was a Hobey Baker finalist the past two years, and actually won it in April, but he did so at a fairly advanced age. He’s a year younger than Kevin Hayes is now (the other big UFA college signing in recent years), and he’s three months older than Johnny Gaudreau (who won the award in 2014) years ago). If he weren’t the most effective player in college hockey in either of the last two seasons — and by the way, he wasn’t — that’s a point of concern, to some extent.
There’s no doubt he was a high-end NCAA player. Very few guys who finish in the top-3 in Hobey voting two years in a row aren’t going to land there. But again, age is a factor here, as is the fact that Vesey was routinely outperformed by those top-level players who were younger than him.
I looked at the stats for every forward who finished top-10 in Hobey voting over the last three seasons — in which Vesey was 20, 21, and 22 years old (he’s a May ’93 birthdate, so he’ll start next season at almost 23.5 years old) — and found that Vesey was one of the better players in the entire group both years. He should have been, because the average forward in this group was a little less than 22, and Vesey won the award a month and a half shy of his 23rd birthday.
It’s also worth noting that Vesey played in a more difficult conferences than most; only Hockey East and the NCHC are tougher on scorers than the ECAC. In all, half the finalists were from lesser leagues. With this in mind, it’s important to look at 5-on-5 performance, because if you’re a high-level player, you should be able to rack up a lot of points on the power play. In this regard, Vesey is pretty good. His last two seasons rank fourth and sixth of 20 in terms of percentage of points scored at 5-on-5. He’s also second and fourth in percentage of shot attempts at full strength.
No surprise, then, that in terms of raw production, a player of his talents came out looking pretty good:
The last three Hobey winners are bolded, and Vesey’s runner-up status in 2014-15 is included for reference. But again, note the age gap: he lost to Eichel when he was four years older. He was two years older than Gaudreau was in 2013-14.
Why keep bringing up the age gap? Because we have plenty of evidence to suggest that there’s not much more runway for Vesey’s development. Eric Tulsky, now on the Carolina Hurricanes’ payroll, showed that an NHL player’s 5-on-5 scoring ability peaks somewhere between his 24th and 25th birthdays. For Vesey, that gives you a window of about 18 or maybe 24 months in which you’re really going to get the chance to see him max out his scoring potential. The fact is by 2018-19, Vesey will almost certainly be declining. The good news is you maintain a good chunk of your production until your 30th birthday, but honestly, what does that ceiling look like?
I don’t always put a lot of stock into NHLe, a model developed to approximate what scoring in lower leagues — from the QMJHL to the AHL — would look like if they went to the NHL at that age. Sometimes you look at an NHLe output and think to yourself that doesn’t seem right. Vesey’s is one of those; based on his production this year, the latest data suggests he’d have only scored about 26 points in 82 games.
I’m really not sure I buy that, but even a huge jump in that number keeps him below 40 points for the season. Jason Chimera had 40 points last year. No one thinks Jason Chimera is all that good.
The things Vesey has going for him, in my opinion, is that he has always been a volume shooter in college. He ranked eighth and fifth among all college players in shots per game over the past two seasons, respectively, and the ability to generate shots attempts, let alone getting them on goal, is a vital skill. It’s the big reason Frank Vatrano projected so well for the NHL, and was one-and-done in college.
By the way, Vatrano destroyed the AHL — 36-19-55 in 36 games — and played well in the NHL last season, all while being a year younger than Vesey. He did it mostly via shot volume. Vatrano is one of only 21 NHL rookies in the since 2007-08 to average more than 2.5 shots on goal per game, and everyone else on the list is pretty damn good. Vatrano also finished 15th in the AHL in shots on goal despite only playing half the season there. Vesey might not be able to achieve those kinds of feats, but because he shoots the puck a lot, he’ll probably put himself in a position to succeed.
If we’re going to circle back to the Kevin Hayes comparison, that’s a good target to set for Vesey and whoever signs him. Hayes, who’s about 12.5 months older, has been in the NHL for two years and is pretty much a 40-point guy who does all the good underlying things that lead to team success. In my live viewings, I found Vesey was a decent relative possession driver on a slightly above-average possession team. I’d take Hayes over Vesey every day of the week right now, so if that’s what Vesey becomes, that’s great. He has the raw talent level to do it, and maybe even score more goals than Hayes does because, in college at least, Hayes couldn’t hold a candle to Vesey in shot generation.
All of this is to say that Vesey is probably a decent middle-six NHLer right this second. He compares well to just about every high-level college forward of the last three years, and even if the production hasn’t been there in terms of points, he does the things that lead to points — and goals specifically — better than most of his peers. I’d be a little concerned about how maxed-out his capabilities are, and I probably wouldn’t pull a Poile and guarantee him top-six minutes, but he’s the kind of asset teams should want to lock down.
Whoever signs him is getting a good player. Just not the difference-maker many expect.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: I completely forgot Randy Carlyle is the coach of the Ducks again. Trying to block out the bad stuff, I guess.
Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes open the season with a home game, then aren’t in Glendale again until two weeks later. It’s their longest road trip of the year. That probably starts them pretty deep behind the 8-ball, hey?
Florida Panthers: Gerard Gallant says the Panthers expect to make the playoffs again next year, which they should because they did it last year and got a lot better this summer.
Las Vegas No-Names: I knew “Nighthawks” sounded familiar.
Nashville Predators: My son!
— Claude Giroux (@fauxGiroux) August 13, 2016
St. Louis Blues: Have you ever been less excited for a Winter Classic than Chicago/St. Louis?
Tampa Bay Lightning: This could be a sneaky-good move by Tampa, and if it doesn’t work out, no big deal.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Still waiting on an arbitrator’s ruling for that Jared Cowen buyout that would somehow give the Leafs a small cap credit.
Gold Star Award
For real though, let’s get Patrick Roy coaching Montreal by late November. That would be awesome. I would love that. Let’s make that happen. Come on now.
Minus of the Weekend
Whoever put together this list needs to take the day to have a nice hard think.
NHL Network's Top 20 Defensemen right now pic.twitter.com/4iXvlWndgf
— Evgeni Malkin's Ego (@EvgeniMaIkinEgo) August 14, 2016
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “mhstudios” wants to tinker.
To Edmonton: Dylan Larkin
To Detroit: Leon Draisaitl or RNH
That’s a half-truth.
(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)
Greg Wyshynski live from Rio: Tara & Johnny Q&A, green fart water, and more: