The summer's longest running free agency drama is finally nearing a conclusion.
Jimmy Vesey, the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner, officially hit the market at 12:01 AM Tuesday morning. Now, the 23-year-old power forward and his agents can begin to meet with a select number of interested teams in Boston, with a decision on his future likely coming by the end of the week.
Vesey will receive a max entry-level contract—two years at $925,000 plus $2.85 million in performance bonuses—so money won't be a lure. Instead, teams will look to woo him with a defined role, championship potential, friends and family connections and hometown pride.
It's not known yet how many teams will be involved in the process but the Chicago Blackhawks, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins are all believed to have been invited to make their pitch.
The Buffalo Sabres are also in the mix. They acquired Vesey's rights in a trade with Nashville on June 20 after he informed the Predators that he planned to take advantage of a clause in the league's collective bargaining agreement to become a free agent.
Although that gamble didn't convince Vesey to sign early, the Sabres still look like an appealing option. The organization boasts a wealth of young talent, including Vesey's friend and summer training partner Jack Eichel and, while they're not close to contending now, their future is very bright. The Maple Leafs and Islanders are likely to employ the same blue-sky strategy to lure Vesey, although Toronto has two aces in the hole: Vesey's father and brother are part of the organization.
The Bruins will try to sell Vesey, a native of Charlestown, Mass., on the opportunity to play for his hometown team, as well wearing the sweater that his father, Jim, once wore. The Rangers will dangle the chance to play in the league's biggest market, with all the endorsement opportunities that entails, along with the chance to be part of the team's transition to youth alongside his buddy, Kevin Hayes. Pittsburgh can offer a chance to play with the defending champs and, possibly, a spot on a line with Sidney Crosby.
But the two most intriguing options might be the Devils and Blackhawks. New Jersey has come from out of nowhere to become a leading contender for Vesey's services. They can offer a chance to play under John Hynes, who made a strong impression in his rookie season behind the bench, on a team where he would be certain to skate top-six minutes. Chicago, meanwhile, is the league's model franchise, a three-time Stanley Cup winner built to contend for the next five years. With Brandon Saad gone to Columbus, Vesey projects as a possible replacement on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.
That's a tough offer to top from a hockey perspective, but there's no telling what's in Vesey's heart. What does the chance to stay in Boston mean to the former Harvard Crimson star? Do family ties make the Leafs irresistible?
NHL's All Time Best and Worst College Free Agents
Best: Adam Oates
A brilliantly creative playmaker, Oates was originally signed by Detroit in 1985 and went on to become the set-up man who keyed Brett Hull to three consecutive seasons of 70-plus goals in St. Louis. Oates then moved on to Boston, where he helped Cam Neely to three years as a 50-goal man. He ranks seventh on the NHL's all-time assist list with 1,079.
Worst: Drew Leblanc
The 2013 Hobey Baker Award winner arrived in Chicago with a reputation as an elite playmaker but he lasted just two games with the Blackhawks before being relegated to the AHL. Leblanc spent two undistinguished seasons in Rockford before moving on to the German League.
Best: Blake Wheeler
Using the same clause that allowed Jimmy Vesey to become a UFA out of college, Wheeler spurned the Phoenix Coyotes to sign with the Boston Bruins in 2008. Traded to the Atlanta Thrashers in 2011, he's since matured into an outstanding leader and a top scorer with the franchise since its relocation to Winnipeg.
Worst: Jarod Palmer
A star forward at Miami of Ohio, Palmer was rated the top college free agent of 2010 by Red Line Report. Lingering injuries and a lack of finish conspired against him, limiting him to just six games and one goal in the NHL before he retired in 2013.
Best: Ed Belfour
Expectations were high for Belfour, who signed as a free agent after leading North Dakota to a national championship 1987. He did not disappoint. The Eagle spent seven seasons in Chicago, picking up a pair of Vezina trophies before moving on to Dallas where he won the Stanley Cup in 1999. He won 484 games during his career, ranking third on the all-time list, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Worst: Matt Gilroy
Gilroy seemed to be the complete package when he signed out of Boston University. At 6' 2", 200 pounds, he was a smooth-skating, puck-moving defender and a Hobey Baker winner, prompting the Blueshirts to sign the 24-year-old to a lucrative two-year, $3.5 million deal. He went on to play 225 games for four different NHL clubs, but never managed to move beyond the third pair. Out of NHL options, he eventually shuffled off to the KHL.
Best: Joe Mullen
The Boston College star was a victim of the NHL's anti-American bias at the draft but made an immediate impact as a free agent, scoring 25 goals in his rookie season of 1981-82. He went on to become the first American to score 500 goals and 1,000 points in the NHL, blazing a trail for the next generation of U.S.-born stars.
Worst: Stephane Da Costa
The French-born center led the Merrimack Warriors in each of his first two college seasons, inspiring the Ottawa Senators to outbid 20 teams sign the top-rated free agent to a two-year deal. But Da Costa's puck skills and creativity failed to impress over four seasons and 47 games in the NHL, so he moved on to the KHL where he had some success.
Best: Dan Boyle
The NHL valued size over skill when Boyle was starring at Miami of Ohio, but the Panthers liked his numbers (94 points in 77 games during his junior/senior seasons) and gave him a chance in the minors. He eventually was moved to Tampa Bay where he became a two-time All-Star and a 2004 Stanley Cup winner.
Worst: Ray Staszak, Chris Cichocki, Dale Krentz
Starving for talent, the Red Wings went on an epic college free agent shopping spree in the summer of 1985, highlighted by the signing of Staszak to a four-year, $1.4 million deal, the richest rookie contract in NHL history. He went on to play just four NHL games before being sent down, getting injured and calling it quits, assuring himself a place in hockey history as the greatest UFA bust of all time. Cichocki and Krentz hardly fared better, lasting just 68 and 30 games, respectively.
And then there's the larger question: Is he worth the hype? We've seen similarly heralded college free agents come and go without making a splash, so there are no guarantees.
But he certainly looks the part at 6' 3" and 205 pounds. And his last two seasons at Harvard were impressive, with Vesey totaling 56 goals and 104 points in 70 games.
With nothing at risk but cap space, it's easy to see why he's so coveted. But it's also clear that choosing a destination is just the first step. Once he does that, it's up to Vesey to prove he belongs.