Sunday, January 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning up next: Rangers' Jimmy Vesey shows his skill, toughness

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Jimmy Vesey scored the fourth goal of his fledgling NHL career for the Rangers on Wednesday night, but Bruins forward David Pastrnak crosschecked him into the end boards before Vesey had much of a chance to celebrate.

So Vesey found Pastrnak and crosschecked him back. Then he hugged his teammates.

Vesey's father, Jim, a former NHL forward, happened to be watching the game on television. The goal, a tap-in off a gorgeous cross-ice pass from Rick Nash, was terrific, but to his father, Vesey's response to Pastrnak was even better.

"I said, 'When he hits you, you'd better hit him back,' " Jim Vesey said. "He's going to protect himself."

Jimmy Vesey, a 23-year-old from North Reading, Mass., was the captain of the Harvard hockey team, and he won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the top NCAA player last season.

As a senior, Vesey scored 24 goals in 33 games and sat in the penalty box for only six minutes. But it has become apparent to the Rangers — who face the Lightning on Sunday at Madison Square Garden — that he takes great pride in being more than a prolific scorer. At 6 feet 3, 207 pounds, Vesey can be physical and punishing.

"I have a bigger body, and I don't mind doing that stuff," Vesey said Thursday after practice. "It's what I'm looking to bring every night."

Ted Donato, a former NHL forward who is the coach at Harvard, said Vesey worked at becoming a better all-around player while with the Crimson.

"Now, it's not just about whether he scores or not. A coach can trust him to be on the ice up a goal or down a goal," Donato said.

"He had a commitment to becoming a 200-foot player," Donato added, referring to Vesey's defensive abilities. "Jimmy came in as a player who could score, but he left as a player who could score goals but also kill penalties, a guy you could use in all situations. Those kind of guys buy themselves more leeway with coaches, not just because they can score goals."

Vesey was selected by Nashville in the third round of the 2012 NHL draft, but decided to go to Harvard. Nashville could not sign him in its allotted time and traded his rights to Buffalo in June. The Sabres could not sign him, either, so Vesey became an unrestricted free agent.

Eight NHL teams, including his hometown Bruins, pursued him. Vesey signed with the Rangers because he thought they really wanted him. It was a bonus that Rangers forward Kevin Hayes is a friend since childhood. Now the two are dressing-room neighbors.

"Jeff Gorton and Chris Drury are the ones who really did their homework on him," said coach Alain Vigneault, referring to the Rangers' general manager and assistant general manager. "They had told me he was a good two-way player at the university level.

"Now, whether that translates to the NHL, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. But in Jimmy's case, with his skill set, his work habits, his work attitude and his smarts, he's been capable so far to settle in what we're trying to teach. He's been efficient on both ends of the rink right now."

Jim Vesey would regard this as the highest praise. Vesey, 51, grew up in Charlestown, a working-class Boston neighborhood, and had a seven-year professional career, playing in only 15 NHL games.

Jimmy Vesey was born as his father was about to make the last stop of his career, with the Phoenix Roadrunners of the International Hockey League. He grew up with his father as his coach from the 8-and-under mites level to high school.

"We spent a lot of time in the car," Jimmy Vesey said, smiling. "He taught me how to grow up and be a man. He was one of the biggest influences on me. He was definitely passionate about hockey with me and my brother, but no one really pushed us or forced us to do anything."

As a coach, Jim Vesey, who is now a Boston-based amateur scout for the Maple Leafs, said he expected all his players, no matter how gifted they were at putting the puck into the net, to play hard in all zones, or else they would not play at all. Soon, Harvard called.

"And when you go to Harvard, let's face it: Harvard is not a place you go to leave early," Jim Vesey said.

Playing hockey at Harvard turned into a four-year project for Jimmy Vesey. The Crimson had losing records in his first two years there, but he was asked to fill many roles. Harvard qualified for the NCAA tournament in his last two years, but lost in the first round each time.

Along the way, Donato said, Vesey "reconfigured his body," becoming more explosive and powerful.

"I think I grew up a lot in college," Vesey said. "Staying four years really helped me. I grew as a hockey player and as a person. I was learning how to play within a team and how to play two ways, but maturity was the biggest thing."

Vesey scored five goals in four games for a team of Rangers prospects at a pre-training camp tournament in Traverse City, Mich., but drew praise from coaches for his ability to drive to the goal. He then won a spot on a line with Derek Stepan and Nash.

"What I like about him the most is that he gets to the gritty areas," Stepan said. "He seems to be always be in the tough areas, and that's where you score goals. That's something going forward that he's going to need to do if he wants to keep having success."

Nash said of Vesey: "He's kind of got a power-forward-type style to him. He's a big guy, uses his body, but he's good with his hands, too. Fun guy to play with. But you have to be able to play defense. A guy has got to learn at a young age that the offensive chances are going to come with good defense. He plays the body, so he's got a little bit of aggressiveness, too."

Hockey coaches and players like to refer to that quality as bite. Vesey scored in his third NHL game, a 7-4 victory over the Sharks on Oct. 17 at Madison Square Garden, then scored twice in his fifth game, a 4-2 victory at Washington five days later. With his first goal out of the way, his father said, Vesey can focus on blending in.

Vesey has a bachelor's degree in government from Harvard, but asked what he would do if he could no longer play hockey, he said he would probably be a hockey coach or hockey executive.

"My dad played. My older cousins played. Me and my brother played. I just liked it," Vesey said. "It's like a religion in Boston, especially in the city. It's in our blood. We grew up with it and fell in love with it."

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