How the Rangers Gave Up the Farm Yet Still Got the Milk for Free

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

When the Rangers announced they’d signed Harvard standout and former Nashville Predators third-round draft pick Jimmy Vesey this summer, media pundits and fans alike were genuinely surprised. At least eight teams had their sights set on him, but the Rangers were the team Vesey chose to sign with despite a cavalcade of suitors, many of whom were considered “smarter” choices by some of the NHL’s media talking heads and insiders. On some level, even the Rangers themselves might have been surprised they’d won the Sweepstakes. They were by all accounts a longshot team to land him given the stiff competition they faced with his hometown Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He grew up in Boston and played four years of college hockey at Harvard University while the Leafs employ his father and drafted his brother Nolan in the 6th round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Both teams topped the list of likely front-runners. Not to mention the Buffalo Sabres who traded a 2016 third-round pick to the Predators to have Vesey’s exclusive negotiating rights prior to him becoming a free agent — rights they were unable to translate into a contract agreement.

Rangers’ GM Jeff Gorton was reportedly elated on the Friday Vesey made his decision when he saw the Boston exchange on his caller ID, and for good reason. Vesey has been a revelation and fans have been salivating to see him play this season since his dominant performance at the 2016 Traverse City tournament where he lead the Rangers squad with five goals and two assists in four games.

Fast forward to the end of October and through his first ten games, Vesey’s six goals have him in a multi-player tie for second in goals in the NHL. His name sits beside ones like Patrick Laine, Alex Killorn, and Auston Matthews. But Vesey’s production thus far represents only a portion of his value given the nature in which he was acquired. For the Rangers, he cost them nothing but money, and due to CBA restrictions on just how much he is permitted to make, even with his contract pumped to the maximum allowable bonus structure, that money fits comfortably under the cap of a team that routinely spends to the ceiling. According to CapFriendly.com, Vesey’s two-year deal carries a base salary of $925,000, which is the maximum allowed for an entry-level contract, and upwards of $2.85M in performance bonuses, making his maximum AAV $3.775M (provided he meets his performance conditions). Given what he’s shown the Rangers thus far, it’s safe to assume he’s going to be worth every penny, and could potentially trigger some of even the hardest to attain bonus thresholds.

Targeting low-risk, high-reward NCAA free agents is a strategy the Rangers are quite good at and considering the wealth of draft picks—the traditional building tool by which teams acquire cost-controlled talent—they’ve sacrificed in pursuit of an as-of-yet elusive Stanley Cup over the last four seasons, it’s that much more important they find quality players in this manner. Vesey is only the most recent win in that regard. Dating back to 2013, he follows a group that includes a resurgent Kevin Hayes (a former Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick from 2010), Ryan Haggerty (who was traded to Chicago for Antti Raanta), Mat Bodie, John Gilmour (who had a raw but promising training camp), former Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy (who despite not panning out for the Rangers still played in 225 NHL games), and of course now starting goaltender for the Oilers, Cam Talbot. The Rangers also unsuccessfully courted both University of Minnesota free agent defenseman Mike Reilly, who ended up signing with the Wild in 2015, as well as University of Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz, who signed with the Oilers in 2012.

For all intents and purposes, the Rangers have been in “go for it now” mode since 2013 when they began their first all-in attempt dealing a 2013 second-round pick, a 2013 third-round pick (originally owned by Florida), and a conditional second-round pick for Ryane Clowe. That team ultimately lost to the Bruins in the second round of the playoffs that season. Since then the Rangers have only doubled and tripled down on their go-for-broke efforts in trades for players like Martin St. Louis, Keith Yandle, and Eric Staal in successive seasons. The end-of-night bill of draft picks sacrificed in their quest since 2013 reads as follows:

2013 1st (Kerby Rychel), 2nd, 3rd, 5th
2014 1st (Josh Ho-Sang)
2015 1st (Anthony Beauvillier), 2nd, 5th
2016 1st (Dennis Cholowski), 2nd, 4th
2017  2nd

It’s for this reason that Jimmy Vesey and players like him have truly helped to mitigate the pain the Rangers should be feeling right now, given just how much they’ve sacrificed in their losing efforts to hoist the Stanely Cup. Especially because those picks weren’t all that the Rangers gave up along the way. Promising young goal-scorer Anthony Duclair, a projected first-round talent who fell to the third-round of the 2013 draft where the Rangers took him, went to Arizona in the Keith Yandle trade, while Aleksi Saarela, the Rangers’ 2015 third-round pick, went to Carolina in the Eric Staal deal. Duclair has gone on to find early success with Arizona playing alongside Max Domi while Aleksi Saarela recently signed his entry-level contract with Carolina and is currently playing with Lukko of Liiga (Finnish elite league). St. Louis has since retired, Yandle’s rights were eventually traded for a paltry sixth-round pick to the Florida Panthers who re-signed him to a seven-year/$44.45M extension and Eric Staal signed a three-year/$10.5M contract with the Minnesota Wild this past summer. In case you’ve lost count, that’s four consecutive first-round picks, four second-round picks, one third-round pick, and a slew of fourth and fifth-round picks over the span of five years. Later selections were moved in smaller deals in various years, but this collection represents the glut of the most valuable picks the Rangers dealt away with nothing to show for it but two Conference Final appearances and a losing Stanley Cup Final berth. Given the cost it took to get there, those appearances aren’t enough, and the Rangers know it.

Generally speaking, I try to steer clear of terms like “steal” given its hyperbolic overuse in describing almost anything positive regardless of cost. The Rangers continually courting and signing Unrestricted Free Agent college players have likely found another one of them in Jimmy Vesey. At just 23-years old, the future is incredibly bright not only for him but the Rangers as well, in spite of the farm they sold for a Cup they’ve yet to win.

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