Rick Nash couldn’t help but watch Jimmy Vesey during Rangers training camp ahead of the 2016-17 season.
Here was a 23-year-old kid coming off one of the most publicized free agency sweepstakes in recent memory. Vesey had declined to sign with the Predators, who drafted him No. 66 overall in 2012 and offered him a top-six pick entering the 2016 playoffs after he finished his season at Harvard. He then opted to test the free agent market after two months of negotiations with the Sabres, the team that had acquired his rights.
In the span of two days after becoming an unrestricted free agent, Vesey met with the Bruins, Blackhawks, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Penguins and Maple Leafs in his hometown of Boston. Word was that several Bruins players came to greet him during their organization’s meeting with him at the club’s new practice facility.
The Islanders dismantled then-captain John Tavares during their homestand. Patrick Kane was in attendance at Chicago’s meeting with him, while the Devils had goaltender Cory Snyder and forward Kyle Palmieri talk to Vesey. Kevin Hayes, a Boston native who played for the Rangers at the time and was already in a relationship with Vesey, spoke with him at length about the consultation process. Even Penguins captain Sidney Crosby reached out.
On August 19, 2016, one of the most anticipated college free agent signings took place when Vesey decided to become a Ranger.
“You hear about all of this and you kind of wonder what type of kid they are and what their purpose is behind it,” Nash told The Post in a recent phone interview. “I could tell right away he was a good kid. I always thought of him as a guy who just wanted to play hockey and I felt like he hated all the hype around him. The different teams and switching teams and being in Nashville, being in Buffalo, it seemed like he was just a kid who wanted to play hockey and wanted to succeed in his career.
“As a teammate, he couldn’t be a better kid and more of a team player and willing to do whatever it takes for Rangers to win.”
After three seasons in New York, one in Buffalo, one half in Toronto, the other half in Vancouver and one in New Jersey, Vesey seemingly went through hell and returned to return to the Big Apple. He turned a professional trial contract into a one-year contract and then a two-year extension, the kind of tenure he had failed to sign since the end of his first spell with Rangers three-and-a-half years earlier.
The Jimmy Vesey wearing the Blueshirts sweater now, however, is a much different player than he was the first time around. Although if you ask the only two Rangers close enough to see his arrival and return, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, they’ll tell you it’s the same guy off the ice.
What certainly hasn’t changed is Vesey’s affinity for the Rangers organization and New York.
“At the end of the day, this is where I wanted to play all the time,” Vesey told The Post after scoring the game-winning goal and adding an empty netter in the Rangers’ win over the Maple Leafs in December. . 15
Vesey entered the Rangers locker room as the top prospect of the 2016 offseason after recently being named the top player in college hockey as the Hobey Baker Award winner after recording 24 goals and 46 points in 33 games during his senior year in Harvard.
“The teams that felt like they were being neglected weren’t happy when we went there,” Kreider recalls. “The guy had only played like a handful of NHL games and he’s getting cut by four out of five different teams.”
Like many other highly touted prospects, the expectations were disastrous. And under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, they were going blind. Still Vesey integrated seamlessly into the clubhouse as it quickly became apparent that he was far from what the free agent frenzy suggested.
Nash said he was immediately drawn to Vesey, with whom he said he shares a similar personality. Vesey fit into the team seamlessly, according to Nash. He respects the coaches, the administration and the organization. He showed up early to meetings and was on the ice early before practice. He was a first-team guy.
“I think I played one of the first rounds of golf with him and he couldn’t even hit the ball,” said Nash, who is now director of player development for the Blue Jackets, with a laugh. “He wanted to play sports because, you know, all the kids played in the summer. Right before camp, it was a huge bond. When you are a quieter type, you look for all kinds of experiences to connect with children.
“It was hard to watch the golf game at first, but I haven’t played with him in a few years. He’s telling me now that it can be almost a single-digit handicap.”
The two developed a strong friendship despite the nine-year age gap. They both lived in Tribeca and as a result, spent a lot of time together sharing rides to the ice rink and Madison Square Garden.
“He became close with my wife, too, and I think he was texting her like she was my mom and asking, ‘Can Rick come and watch the game?’ Nash said.
When the going got tough, Vesey confided in Nash. After totaling 16 goals and 11 assists in 80 regular season games as a rookie, Vesey had a strong performance with one goal and four assists in the playoffs as the Rangers reached the second round. However, his overall streak that followed was an immediate disappointment and attacked his confidence.
Vesey struggled to live up to the expectations imposed on him from the outside and the expectations he set for himself from within. He finished with 50 goals and 40 assists in 240 games over the first three seasons of his NHL career before the Rangers traded him to Buffalo in July 2019.
“You don’t want to be a roller coaster in your career,” Nash said of the advice he gave Vesey. “As I watched him go to the Leafs and go to Vancouver, fight for a contract and get a PTO and now win that contract, I think he’s been the perfect example of that, where he’s just been consistent and has worked for everything what he has achieved”.
After reinventing himself and his game as he bounced around Buffalo, Toronto, Vancouver and New Jersey, during which he had some “lousy” moments, Vesey said he feels like he’s playing some of the best hockey of his career of since returning to Rangers. .
Gerard Gallant expressed comfort with Vesey being attached to any line — and the Rangers head coach did just that. The 29-year-old forward has collected nine goals and eight assists in 48 games, more points than he has scored in the last two seasons. He has been able to take on more responsibility in the penalty shootout and has even earned some important top six minutes.
More than anything else, there is a stability to Vesey that has allowed him to consistently make an impact.
“He’s been through a few teams and here, obviously – I hope – he feels at home,” Zibanejad said. “This is where it started. He’s coming to a new team, but he knows how things work here. The facilities, the town and everything. I think that kind of affects a little bit, too. It puts him at ease immediately.
“He was gone for a while and came back. That’s the only thing I can see.”
Added Kreider: “Obviously, he’s worked on his game. That’s why he’s still playing, that’s why any of us are still playing. He is competitive, he wants to win.”
From the outside, New York’s overwhelming manners and brashness don’t seem to suit someone as soft-spoken and humble as Vesey. Nash even said he didn’t see him as a city guy, which made his initial choice to play for the Rangers all the more interesting. However, Vesey found his way back to the very place where he began his NHL career, despite being chewed up and spit out.
Vesey is back for more and has already managed to show more in the absence of all the pomp and circumstance that plagued his first spell with Rangers.
It’s always been New York for Jimmy Vesey.