NEWARK, N.J. — In the second episode of the Amazon Prime Original docuseries, “All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs,” fans are taken inside the short-lived tenure of Jimmy Vesey in 2021.
“We brought you here with a good opportunity in wanting you to make a difference,” coach Sheldon Keefe tells Vesey after pulling him aside for a one-on-one. “I want to be sure that you know, it’s been very vanilla.”
By the end of the 46-minute episode, Vesey is heading west after being picked up on waivers by the Canucks.
“Yeah, it was tough. It was my first move mid-season. I had been traded before but it was in the summer so it was a little stressful,” Vesey said. “I guess in general, last year seemed pretty long for me. I had gone to Toronto two months before the season and then, obviously, halfway through I ended up in Vancouver and we had a COVID shut down while I was there. The season got extended. So it’s a tough year, stressful at times … a bit chaotic but happy to be here.”
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Here is New Jersey. Standing in front of reporters in the bowels of the Prudential Center during media day, the 28-year-old is sporting a red hoodie with “Devils Hockey” emblazoned on the front and his (new) No. 16 in the corner. But a future in the Garden State is not guaranteed for the 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner. He’s on a PTO.
“He has to reinvent himself. He has to be really good defensively. He has to be a good special teams player. He has to bring physicality, which I think he can. I’ve seen Jimmy play with a lot of bite and that’s an area that I think can help our club,” noted Devils coach Lindy Ruff, who was an assistant on Alain Vigneault’s staff in New York during Vesey’s sophomore and junior NHL seasons.
“He knows he’s desperate to earn a job on this team and has to earn a job; I’ll just say that. There’s other young guys that are gonna push him for that same position and I think inside he realizes this is a chance he can’t mess up on.”
General manager Tom Fitzgerald said that while Vesey was brought in to push the rest of the group and create competition, there is “an opportunity here to make the team” — adding he’s not “Whistling ‘Dixie’ here,” to show he’s serious.
Things look promising so far for Vesey, who in the preseason’s first intrasquad scrimmage put up three points. It harkens back to a guy who was a highly sought-after prospect once his four years at Harvard came to a close. It’s also reminiscent of a winger who posted 90 points (50 goals, 40 assists) in three seasons — 35 in 2018-19, where he “thought I kind of had it figured out” — across the Hudson River with the Rangers.
However, the last two years were anything but ideal: 30 points in 114 games between the Sabres, Maple Leafs and, his last stop, the Canucks.
“I got picked up by them on waivers and thought this is a great opportunity. I had four games and I thought I played well and then the COVID shutdown kind of deflated everybody,” recalled Vesey. On March 31, the Canucks-Flames game was suspended within an hour of puck drop, starting an almost-month-long suspension of Vancouver’s season.
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It just added another tough layer to an already hard 2021 for the Massachusetts native. He was in Canada two months before the season started, and stayed through the end of the extended campaign — without the possibility of family or friends based in the United States visiting.
“It made for a long year,” he said. “I think there was some anxiety that came with that as well, especially down the stretch in Vancouver. The shutdown was pretty brutal to be honest. I never actually got COVID in that time but still wasn’t allowed to leave other than to get swabbed.
“It felt like the walls were closing in on me at points and we ended up having to play I think 19 games in 30 or 31 days so, it was a lot to handle. I’m stronger having gone through that.”
A stronger, focused Vesey is certainly someone who could help a young Devils squad aiming for their first postseason appearance since 2018, and just their second since a Stanley Cup Final spot in 2012. If he does ink a new deal, he would be expected to play a bottom-six role on the wing while also seeing penalty-killing duties. In 30 games with the Leafs, he ranked 10th in shorthanded total ice time (25:31) and was second on the Canucks in power-play goals against per 60 minutes (3.81) despite playing just 20 games and 31:31 of SH TOI.
In the Devils preseason game Wednesday against the Capitals, Vesey skated on the wing with captain Nico Hischier at center and 2019 draft pick Graeme Clarke on the right wing. He was on the ice for an even-strength and a power-play goal against over the course of his 15:46 — 2:44 of that while the team was shorthanded.
“You need to find something that’s going to be your thing,” Keefe told Vesey, who was struggling to find his game, and maybe some confidence, with Toronto.
Well, maybe this is the thing that’ll help Vesey earn his next NHL contract.
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