By Sean Hartnett
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Jeff Gorton believes rookie forward Jimmy Vesey can contribute right away in the NHL.
The Rangers’ general manager admitted that he could not contain his excitement when the coveted free agent told him he was choosing Madison Square Garden as his new home.
“I was glad to see the caller ID and see the Boston number, so I hurried to answer it,” Gorton said during Friday’s conference call. “When he said, ‘Hi, it’s Jimmy Vesey and I’ve made my decision and I’d like to come to New York,’ I probably swore. I’m not sure exactly what I did.”
Gorton’s excitement is understandable. Executives around the league will look to the Rangers with envy because they came away with an NHL-ready talent at a bargain rate capable of filling a top-nine forward role. Vesey signed a two-year, entry-level deal worth $925,000 annually with additional performance-based bonuses.
Unlike the majority of signed college free agents around the league, the 2015-16 Hobey Baker Award winner will face a different set of expectations. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill rookie hoping to scrape his way onto an NHL roster as a 12th or 13th forward. In Gorton’s eyes, Vesey can push for a significant role during the preseason and lock down key ice time ahead of the Rangers’ Oct. 13 season opener against the rival Islanders at MSG.
“I think that he’s got an ability to score,” Gorton said. “He can make plays. He’s a very talented player. Where, what number, what line? I wouldn’t want to go down that road and say yet. But I think he can come in and play. I think he’s going to come in in training camp and do his best to try to fit in as high as he can in our lineup. That’s what we’re looking for.
“This was an opportunity, a real good player that becomes available, and we’re all trying to add that piece,” Gorton added. “It’s pretty well-documented. We haven’t had any first-round picks. We’ve gone four years without them. We’ve traded some second-round picks. So we’re trying to replace some of that depth that we’ve had in the past with some of the prospects. Any time a guy like this becomes available we’re going to do our best to try to get in the race and we were able to do that.”
Vesey, a 23-year-old winger, had an abundance of options to choose from. Seven teams were finalists. Based on needs, some teams offered Vesey a guaranteed top-six forward role. However, pitches from superstars Sidney Crosby, John Tavares and Patrick Kane couldn’t sway Vesey away from the bright lights of MSG.
“It’s a great franchise, Original Six, and a lot of history,” Vesey said. “It was definitely a tough decision, but myself, my agent and my family were very impressed with the Rangers in our meeting. I just thought New York was somewhere I could play and hopefully stick in the NHL. For me, the thing that jumped out was that they seemed to really want me. Talking to them, it seemed that they really needed to have me in their lineup and it seemed that they believed in me.”
Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad are likely to occupy five of the six spots on the Rangers’ top two lines. Perhaps, one of Nash or Kreider could slide to right wing if Vesey impresses head coach Alain Vigneault during the preseason. At worst, Vesey is looking at a third-line role to begin the 2016-17 regular season.
Vesey sounded like a cool customer during his introductory conference call on Friday. He appears to be taking everything in stride despite the hullabaloo that came with his highly-publicized free agent sweepstakes.
“As an athlete, I think I put pressure on myself on my own,” Vesey said. “I think all athletes do to perform to the best of their abilities and I talked to the Rangers and that staff. They don’t expect me to come in and be a savior. I think I’m just a piece they want to add and hopefully I can help the New York Rangers win hockey games.”
At 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds, Vesey possesses an NHL-ready body. He demonstrates good vision on the rush and scores goals in a number of ways. He can beat goalies one-on-one with his tricky backhander, he can get to the high-traffic areas and can slalom through multiple defenders and score on the forehand. In addition to his physical tools, scouts and former Harvard teammates have raved about Vesey’s work ethic.
“I think in talking to the Rangers and their staff and the coaches, there’s no guarantees in sports, obviously, but I feel that New York is somewhere I can plug in right away and play and hopefully stick in the NHL,” Vesey said. “It’s obviously not just going to be given to me. I’m going to have to put in the work and perform on the ice. But I thought New York was somewhere I could plug in right away and be on the opening night roster.”
You get the feeling that this kid could be in for a long and successful run on Broadway.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey