By Sean Hartnett
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Jimmy Vesey entered his rookie season with high expectations on his back after a highly-publicized free agent chase.
In joining the Rangers, Vesey needed to adjust to a bustling city, fit in with an esteemed group of teammates and gain the trust of head coach Alain Vigneault, who has twice guided teams to the Stanley Cup Final.
Yet, the biggest challenge of all for fresh-faced rookies is adapting to NHL speed. With more than a third of the season under his belt, the 23-year-old forward is looking like the kind of talent who will become a staying power due to his multifaceted skill set. The 6-foot-3, 207-pounder has an aptitude for making plays in traffic and demonstrates solid instincts on both ends of the ice.
“I’m definitely improving my all-around game,” Vesey recently told WFAN.com. “I want to make sure every single night I’m doing something to help the team. Even if it’s not offense, it’s about playing hard, playing the right way and being accountable in my own end. As of late, I’ve played in more situations — four-on-four and I’ve gotten some shifts at the end of games. I’m definitely learning. Hopefully, I’m earning the coach’s trust. I’ve bounced around a little bit, but I think I’m doing good.”
After earning the NCAA’s Hobey Baker Award last season, Vesey has notched 17 points, including 10 goals, through his first 30 NHL games. Winnipeg Jets sensation Patrik Laine is the only debutant to record more power play goals than Vesey’s four. Laine, Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vesey share the rookie lead for game-winning goals with three apiece.
Although the Rangers fell 2-1 to the visiting Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, Vesey put in a standout performance. He had a game-high seven shots on goal, setting a career-high, and was able to use to his speed and awareness to win races to pucks against the stout-defending Blackhawks.
“I thought this is maybe the best I have felt all year,” Vesey said. “I really felt good out there and was confident with the puck. It definitely helps my confidence when you keep going out there and just get in a rhythm.”
Alternate captain Dan Girardi has spent 11 seasons as member of the Blueshirts. The 32-year-old defenseman has seen many faces come and go over the years and has noticed Vesey’s dealings with the spotlight.
“I think he’s handled himself really well,” Girardi said. “We’ve got a good mix of young guys and veteran guys that can help him out throughout the way. We want him to wheel out there, play with confidence and not be afraid to make a mistake. When he’s making those plays, trying things and moving his feet, he’s successful.
“He’s keeping it down to earth and not getting too high or too hyped up,” Girardi continued. “Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure coming in after picking his team as a free agent. He’s doing a great job of playing his game and not worrying about external pressure. He’s going about his business and playing hard every night. He’s been good for us so far. He’s a really fast player, he’s speedy. He had his legs tonight. He’s moving his feet, getting in the rush, getting involved, hitting guys and taking pucks to the net. Obviously, he had a lot of chances tonight to score. He had a really good game for us. That was big.”
Vigneault loaded Vesey with 10 third-period shifts as the Rangers searched for the tying goal. By my count, he played close to eight minutes over the final 20.
“Jimmy had a good game,” Vigneault said. “You could see that he had his legs, was skating well and taking pucks to the net. He had some real good looks, especially in the last 30 minutes of the game.”
A rookie who can gain that kind of trust doesn’t come around all that often. It’s little wonder why so many general managers vied for Vesey’s signature this past summer.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey