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Jimmy Vesey happy to be back playing hockey

Forward prospect puts offseason behind him with Rangers at Traverse City

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Just because New York Rangers forward prospect Jimmy Vesey has yet to play an NHL game doesn't mean he isn't privy to the media hype sometimes attached to a professional athlete.

Vesey was a center of attention the moment he graduated from Harvard University with a degree in government in one hand and a Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player in the other.

The process of choosing the right fit and making the biggest decision of his life was suddenly the hottest topic in the NHL. The entire process caught him by surprise.

"The hardest part about my decision was not listening to the outside noise in social media because it's everywhere," Vesey said this week at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament here. "I definitely had to turn my phone off at certain points, but I think my family and friends were really supportive of me throughout the whole summer. I really leaned on them for support to get through it."

Vesey was selected by the Nashville Predators in the third round (No. 66) of the 2012 NHL Draft. Despite having a chance to sign with the Predators and play for them near the end of the regular season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs after his senior season at Harvard, he did not. He was traded to the Buffalo Sabres on June 20, six days before he turned 23 years old, and they also were unable to agree to a contract. He wanted to test the market as an unrestricted free agent, which he became Aug. 16.

Eight NHL teams met with Vesey in an attempt to lure him with their best-case scenario. In addition to the Predators, Sabres and Rangers, the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs reportedly were involved.

Video: Jimmy Vesey at Traverse City prospects tournament

Vesey signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Rangers on Aug. 19.

"You really don't go after someone like [Vesey] unless you think he's a top-two line player," Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark said. "[Vesey] is somebody who can make a difference to your team someday. We were fortunate to be one of those teams in the mix, and he chose us. There's a fight for the top six positions on our team and this is his start going after that particular role."

The day Vesey signed, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton declined to comment on whether or not he would be a top six NHL forward, but the writing is on the wall. Vesey said he is focused just on making the roster.

"As an athlete, I'm a competitor and I'll always put pressure on myself like a lot of athletes do," Vesey said. "I'm just trying to go out there and show the Rangers organization and staff that I compete every night. I'm going to help them win hockey games."

Vesey is doing that this week. He has one goal and two assists, and leads the Rangers with 10 shots on goal through two games. He also scored the decisive goal in a shootout in a 5-4 win against the Dallas Stars on Saturday.

"I'm just here to play hockey and compete every night," Vesey said. "The hoopla is dying down a little bit, so I'm looking forward to getting into things full swing."

Ken Gernander, who coaches Hartford of the American Hockey League, is coaching the Rangers prospects. He has put Vesey in every possible situation, and the hard-working left wing has succeeded. He scored his first goal in a Rangers jersey in an overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the tournament opener Friday.

"He's a player with good size (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) and he's been strong on the puck, has made some good plays defensively," Gernander said. "On his goal, the puck, more or less, just went off him, but he's going to the net. You're always trying to get guys go to the net. If you can get a skilled guy who is going to those areas, it's good."

Vesey has played 5-on-5, and has seen plenty of time on the power play and penalty kill. He's not afraid to position himself in front of the net with the hope of getting a deflection or rebound, and he's comfortable sticking up for himself. He has absorbed more than his share of big hits but hasn't been fazed.

"I'm just a bigger guy, and the NHL is a big league and a skating league, so I'm just going to have to use my skating and size to hold onto pucks, make plays in the open ice, and finish plays when I get a chance," he said.

Vesey has worked exclusively with center Cristoval Nieves (2012 NHL Draft, No. 59), his roommate here. Vesey said he worked out with Nieves and Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel, among others.

"I've talked to those guys, so that helps me see what I'm up against, so to speak," Vesey said. "To see how those guys work out and train. I'm always asking them for tips, and they've been pretty important resources for me this summer."

Vesey had 24 goals, 22 assists and a plus-11 rating in 33 games during his final season at Harvard. He played 128 games over four seasons and had 80 goals and 64 assists. He credits Harvard coach and former NHL player Ted Donato for his success.

"I played four years for [Donato] and I'm a totally different player from when I entered Harvard as a freshman until now," Vesey said. "I remember coming in out of shape and not strong. After four years of lifting and playing for a coach who played 10 years in the NHL, I learned a lot as a person, player and became more mature. I try not to cheat the game."

Vesey scored 56 goals over his final 70 games at Harvard. It's no wonder Rangers fans become a tad excited whenever his name is mentioned.

"I played at Madison Square Garden three times in my career as a member of Harvard, but I know the place gets a lot louder when the Rangers are there," Vesey said. "It's definitely one of the most famous arenas in the world and, from what I've heard, the atmosphere is unbelievable. So that's my ultimate goal right now; it's what I'll be thinking about heading into training camp."

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