Rick Nash couldn’t help but keep an eye on Jimmy Vesey during the Rangers’ training camp ahead of the 2016-17 season.
Here was a 23-year-old kid who was coming off one of the most publicly drawn out 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 spot heading into the 2016 playoffs after he completed his senior season at Harvard. He then opted to test the free-agent market after two months of negotiating 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 home city of Boston. Word was that a number of Bruins players came to greet him during their organization’s meeting with him at the club’s new practice facility.
The Islanders trotted out then-captain John Tavares during their pitch. Patrick Kane was in attendance for Chicago’s meeting with him, while the Devils had goalie Cory Schneider and forward, Kyle Palmieri speak to Vesey. Kevin Hayes, a Boston native who played for the Rangers at the time and already had a relationship with Vesey, chatted with him a bunch over the deliberation process. Even Penguins captain Sidney Crosby reached out.
Jimmy Vesey, celebrating after scoring a game earlier this season, has thrive in his second stint with the Rangers after struggling in his first.Getty Images
On Aug. 19, 2016, one of the most highly anticipated college free-agent signings came to fruition when Vesey decided to become a Ranger.
“You hear about it all and wonder a bit 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 that just wanted to play hockey and I sensed that he kind of hated all that hype around him. The different teams and switching teams and getting booed in Nashville, getting booed in Buffalo, it seemed like he was just a kid that wanted to play hockey and wanted to succeed in his career.
“As a teammate, he couldn’t have been a nicer kid and a more team guy and wanting to do everything for the Rangers to win.”
After three streaky seasons in New York, one in Buffalo, a half in Toronto, the other half in Vancouver and one in New Jersey, Vesey seemingly went through hell and back to return to the Big Apple. He turned a professional tryout contract into a one-year deal and then a two-year extension, which is the kind of term he hadn’t been able to sign for since the end of his first stint with the Rangers three and a half years ago.
The Jimmy Vesey who dons the Blueshirts sweater now, however, is a much different player than he was the first time around. Though if you ask the only two Rangers who have been around long enough to see his arrival and return, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, they’ll tell you he’s the same guy off the ice.
What definitely hasn’t changed is Vesey’s affinity for the Rangers organization and New York City.
“At the end of the day, this is where I wanted to play all along,” Vesey told The Post after scoring the game-winning goal and adding an empty-netter for good measure in the Rangers’ win over the Maple Leafs on Dec. 15.
Jimmy Vesey greets fans before his first NHL game with the Rangers.Getty Images
Vesey stepped into the Rangers locker room as the headlining prospect of the 2016 offseason, having been recently declared the best player in college hockey as the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner after recording 24 goals and 46 points in 33 games during his senior year at Harvard.
“The teams that felt like they were slighted, were not happy when we went there,” Kreider recalled. “The guy had only played like a handful of NHL games and he’s getting booed by like four of five different teams.”
Much like many other highly touted prospects, the expectations were damning. And under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, they were blinding. Still Vesey integrated into the club seamlessly as it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t at all what the free-agent frenzy suggested.
Nash said he immediately gravitated to Vesey, with whom he said he shares a similar personality. Vesey fit into the team seamlessly, according to Nash. He respected the coaches, management and the organization. He showed up to meetings early and was on the ice early before practice. He was a team-first kind of guy.
Rick Nash (right) was a mentor to Jimmy Vesey during his first stint with the Rangers.AP
“I think I played one of his first golf rounds with him, and he couldn’t even hit the ball,” Nash, who is now the director of player development for the Blue Jackets, said with a laugh. “He wanted to take up the sport because, you know, all the guys played in the summer. Right before camp, it was kind of a huge bonding thing. When you’re more of a quiet guy, you’re looking for any kind of experience to get in with the guys.
“It was hard to watch at first, his golf game, but I haven’t played with him in a few years. He’s telling me now that he might almost be a single-digit handicap.”
The two developed a strong friendship despite the nine-year age difference. They both lived in Tribeca and as a result, spent a lot of time together sharing rides to the practice rink and Madison Square Garden.
“He became tight with my wife, as well, and I think he used to actually text her like she was my mom and would ask, ‘Can Rick come over and watch the game?’ ” Nash said.
When things 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 showing with one goal and four assists in the playoffs as the Rangers made it to the second round. His overall streakiness that followed was an immediate letdown, however, and it attacked his confidence.
Vesey struggled to fulfill the expectations that were thrust upon him from the outside and the expectations that he thrust upon himself from the inside. 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 through your career,” Nash said of the advice he gave Vesey. “As I watched him go to the Leafs and go out to Vancouver, struggle for a contract and get on a PTO and now earn this contract, I think he’s kind of been the perfect example of that, where he’s just stayed level-headed and he’s worked for everything that he’s achieved.”
Jimmy Vesey played for Harvard during his college career.AP
After reinventing himself and his game as he bounced from Buffalo, Toronto, Vancouver and New Jersey, during which he had some “miserable” times, Vesey has said he feels he’s playing some of the best hockey of his career since he returned to the Rangers.
Gerard Gallant has expressed a comfort with plugging Vesey into any line — and the Rangers head coach has done just that. The now 29-year-old forward has collected nine goals and eight assists in 48 games, which is already more points than he posted in the last two seasons. He’s worked his way up to more responsibility on the penalty kill and has even earned some significant top-six minutes.
More than anything, there’s a steadiness to Vesey that has allowed him to consistently make an impact.
Jimmy Vesey hugs Adam Fox (No. 23) after a late third-period goal during a Rangers’ win earlier in the season.NHLI via Getty Images
“He’s gone through a couple teams and here, obviously — hopefully— feels like home,” Zibanejad said. “This is where he started. He comes to a new team, but he knows how things work here. The facilities, the city and everything. I think that kind of factors into it a little bit, too. Makes him feel comfortable right away.
“He was away for a little bit 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’s competitive, wants to win.”
From the outside, the overwhelming ways and brashness of New York don’t seem to suit someone as soft-spoken and humble as Vesey. Nash even said he didn’t see him as a city kind of guy, which made his initial choice to play for the Rangers all the more interesting. Yet Vesey has found his way back to this very place where he started his NHL career, even though it chewed him up and spit him out.
Vesey is back for more, and he’s already been able to show more in the absence of all the pomp and circumstance that plagued his first spell with the Rangers.
It’s always been New York for Jimmy Vesey.