If you missed the rest of the list it is right here. The most engaging players in the world are ready to storm the ice. Make sure you know who they are.

5: Jonathan Drouin

A new city, a new team, a new coach and even a new position. Drouin was traded from an offensively focused team, under a coach who kept the pace uptempo in Tampa Bay, in Montreal he’ll be playing under a very strict defensive coach. He also enters the season one of the two or three best offensive forces on the Canadien’s roster. Last year it would have been hard to argue he was even fifth among the offensively blessed Tampa Bay Lightning, this year he’ll be playing center something he hasn’t done at the pro level. Will he thrive and finally give the Habs a lead center? Will he be only marginal in the position? Will he be back to wing before Thanksgiving?

4: Sean Monahan

Last spring Monahan was the only light, bright or otherwise, for the Calgary Flames in the playoffs. He scored four goals, and did it with a rather listless team around him. Will he ride that wave of individual dominance this year and become the team’s new heartbeat? Is he the true offensive successor to Jarome Ignila? How about being the emotional catalyst #12 was? How has his relationship with the rest of the roster changed after an almost universally shameful playoff disaster? Whatever a certain Twitter account might say, I don’t expect a boring year and neither should you.

3: Derek Stepan

Last year Stepan was anything but engaging, over the offseason he was central to the makeover of two teams. His former team is the perhaps the most rearranged team in the east, and the Arizona Coyotes absolutely made the most impactful changes in the west. Stepan is facing more than just a new town, and team. He is one of the oldest players on the roster in the desert and one of the few players to have NHL playoff experience. It is not a stretch to say he is the most battle test player in town still in his prime. Is a bigger role under fewer bright lights what pushes this guy to a new level? Or does he wilt in a small city much as Jeff Carter did during his brief stay in Columbus?

2: Matt Duchene

Despite being at the center of what is currently the longest running, most talked about trade speculation, he has not been moved. After nearly two years of running speculation he is still in the mile high city. The number of times observers have heard from “credible sources” that talks were in progress is high and likely to grow. He’s tried to put on a good face, but no reasonable person expected him to make it past the NHL entry draft in a Colorado Avalanche jersey. The fact that he has yet to land in another uniform is mind boggling. Every delay is value lost. How will he handle another season of speculation and questions? Will he decide to sit until a trade is executed? Where will he be playing the day after the trade deadline? On a team headed for the playoffs or in yet another meaningless game where most of a flaccid roster is counting the shifts until they get to go on vacation for the summer.

1: Jack Eichel

Eichel almost needs two spots on this list. One spot for things directly about him, and one spot for how those around him will react, behave, and where they end up. He just signed a long contract that left money on the table for signing other high end players. But he also has yet to turn in a full and healthy season. Sure last season he beat the previous years 81 game point total in twenty less games, but that’s still 22 games missed in two seasons without the wear and tear of the playoffs. Just making it 82 games will be a challenge. Crossing over into the next strata of offensive weapons is another.

The other half of the equation is; coach, players, and general manager. His linemate Evander Kane has been the center of much trade speculation. Last year’s coach, a Stanley Cup winner, was shown the door after a brief stay not so long after Eichel spoke about the season. More than one older, possibly wiser player’s have to be a bit miffed that they were called on the carpet by someone who won’t even be able to drink legally in the US for a while. If, and its a big if, Eichel instigated the ousting of Dan Bylsma than how secure are new general manager Jason Botterill and head coach Phil Housley, both of whom lack the cache of a cup winner?

Why not listen to the latest episode of Two Man Forecheck while you read?

Last season the Atlantic division sent four teams to the playoffs. It did not go well, the division winning Montreal Canadiens were beaten soundly by wild card and Metropolitan division middleweight Rangers. The Ottawa Senators downed the Boston Bruins and were the only division team to advance to the second round. The Toronto Maple Leafs crossed over to battle the Washington Capitals and fell to a team that’s not ever shown itself in the best light in the playoffs.

What’s happening with the Atlantic Division this year?

The Buffalo Sabres have gotten a full season from All American stud Jack Eichel, and his linemate Evander Kane. Together the pair rank among the top duos in the league, particularly at even strength where most game minutes are played. This year they’ve brought in under rated veteran defenseman Marco Scandella to strengthen a blueline that was misused and under performing last season. Behind the bench they have rookie head coach Phil Housely who is the architect that made the Nashville Predator’s defense so effective. In net they add Chad Johnson to one of the best goalies in the NHL.

The Florida Panthers regressed notably last season. They had one decent stretch of wins but were just three points better than the Sabres, and still 14 points short of the playoffs with a losing record. Like the Sabres they added a first time NHL head coach in Bob Boughner, who will have Jack Capuano and Rob Tallas helping him steer the club. Aside from naming Chris Pronger an Shawn Thornton VP’s, and signing a couple of draft picks (Owen Tippett, Sebastian Repo) to entry level deals, not much else has gone on.

The Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs by just one point thanks to catastrophic injuries up and down their lineup. Towards the end of the year they traded Ben Bishop who had been their number one net minder.  Incoming are Dan Girardi formerly of the New York Rangers, and Chris Kunitz late of the Pittsburgh Penguins. While I suspect a large part of why the two older players were brought in is leadership, no leader can prevent injuries. A return to good health is likely the best off season transaction they could make.

The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs and are currently embroiled in a contract dispute with a one of their better young forwards. The two biggest changes for the Wings in the last twelve months were both off ice. ‘The Joe’ is gone, bringing about an era in a building that isn’t an embarrassment to professional sports. And Mike Ilitch, owner, and driving force behind much of the hockey growth in the Midwest and beyond has passed away. Not enough has changed at ice level for the team to do much worse or much better.

Montreal Canadians, in the last twelve months no Atlantic Division team has changed more. New coach, an almost entirely new blueline including Joe Morrow and Karl Alzner. Up front the Radulov experiment came to an end. Last year’s 103 points are going to be hard to duplicate, but Julien has showed he can drag worse teams than this one to the playoffs, and squeeze 100 or more points out of nearly any roster as long as they show up.

The Boston Bruins had a topsy-turvy season that saw their two best forwards start the year slow. They fired their Stanley Cup winning coach, reshaped their roster, and lucked into a playoff spot. This year Brandon Carlo has a full season under his belt, Charlie McAvoy may well steal the show, and David Pastrnak is still unsigned. It remains to be seen if head coach Bruce Cassidy can recapture the magic that buoyed the team into a playoff spot last spring. The roster will need a lot of young players to step up and not just claim ice time, but own roster spots.

Last years Toronto Maple Leafs were the sensation of last season. They had dazzling rookies, stellar goaltending, and a coach with an aura of greatness. They ran hard towards the playoffs and never anything slow them down. They also had extraordinary good luck in health. Their top 11 scorers missed a total of 10 games. They put on a strong showing in the playoffs, and growth seems likely. The addition of Patrick Marleau for three seasons and more than six million has to be considered at least a little curious given the raises that will be needed for last years rookies next summer and the summer after. The 37 year old spent his entire career to date with the Sharks and has been a very up and down playoff performer.

The post season banner bearers for Atlantic Division were the Ottawa Senators. Despite their inability to fill the stadium, they were perhaps the most consistent team in the division and very quietly finished second. Erik Karlsson will be healthier, Craig Anderson will lack the distractions of last year, and remains a very solid goaltender. They added Nate Thompson and Ben Sexton for depth, but perhaps the most important thing that’s happened to the team was the late year and playoff emergence of the very good Bobby Ryan. He moved crisply, shot precisely, and finished the second round healthy.

Predictions:

Biggest points riser: Buffalo Sabres, I’ll be shocked if they improve less than twelve points.

Most impactful standings rise: Tampa Bay Lightning, Victor Hedman very nearly lifted this team into the playoffs himself last year. There were other contributors, but not enough. Expect them to move up higher than the wild card slot.

Biggest wild card: Toronto Maple Leafs. As I mentioned above, this team was extraordinarily lucky in the way of health. With more than half a dozen rookies breaking out, and making the playoffs the video sessions for the Leafs are going to be much more intense this season. They have about an equal chance of winning the division as they do sliding two or three spots down the standings.

The Atlantic Division and all other NHL teams released their protected lists today, and it’s time to dive into the best and worst moves.

Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins bafflingly failed to protect Adam McQuaid who had the best on ice save percentage differential last year. He was hands down higher than anyone else over the teams even strength save percentage. Instead the protect Kevan Miller who is at least as injury prone, and less offensively productive in the playoffs. Colin Miller is exposed as well. Also protected are Riley Nash who is an interchangeable bottom six forward, and to my mild surprise the mercurial Ryan Spooner, Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes were exposed, not that there’s any chance the latter is taken.

Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres have exposed some pretty interesting names. Zach Bogosian as a former high end pick is possibly the most notable, he was also traded to Buffalo for a top end defensive draft pick who has been protected. Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Josh Georges, and Cody Franson represent a huge amount of the leadership and a reasonable amount of talent. As much as I like Tyler Ennis, I am a little surprised that he was protected and not some of the more obvious leaders.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings are clearly going for a youth movement. You don’t need to look any further than who is unprotected to realize this. Kronwall on the outside looking in is damn near staggering, Jonathan Ericsson is another name Wings fans have been familiar with for a while. I’m a little surprised, verging on bafflement that Jimmy Howard is protected, he’s frequently injured, inconsistent, and at 33 no longer a young guy. Jared Coreau makes way more sense to protect since they are finally moving into their long, long overdue rebuild.

Florida Panthers

The two elder statesmen in Florida are unprojected. Luongo, and Jagr are both free for the picking. Neither is a long term part of the Panthers plan, but both are almost critically important right now. Jonathan Marchessault is a bit of a shocker. Yes last season’s offensive onslaught was a career year, and in the absence of several players further up the depth chart, but he’s a pretty heady name to leave dangling. Jussi Jokinen, and Reilly Smith make a modest amount of success to expose, but its hard to imagine other teams not asking for three way deals in the next couple days. Kindl and Demers being on the outside is no surprise since neither is very good. Pysyk would be a head scratcher if it weren’t for Kindl and Demers.

Montreal Canadiens

The Habs have some mighty interesting names on the outside. Tom Plekanec is a name that leaps off the page. The rest of the list is sorta like the being one of the younger Kardashians, they’re notable for being notable and who they are near too. Dalton Thrower was a well regarded prospect not long ago, Stanley Cup winner Dwight King was brought in mid season to thicken up the bottom six, Radulov and Emelin as Russians have to be considered higher likelihood losses than they would if anyone other than McPhee were drafting, and beyond that I’m more baffled at who they did pick.

Paul Byron is worthy of being protected? Really? In what universe? Philip Danault and Jeff Petry? If you missed my piece yesterday, stop and read the first bit at least, the rest of this article will still be here.

Ottawa Senators

Bobby Ryan not being protected after the playoff run he had makes sense if you have no memory of the three years previous. Alex Andre Burrows is on the outside as well. I think with his decline of late, age, and new contract he’s likely safe. I can see the arguments for and against exposing both Methot and Borowiecki, particularly given the latter’s season ending injury, it might be some cagey work in Canada’s capital to leave them both on the outside, especially since given their composition, and last year’s success I can’t fault the Senators protected lists even a bit.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Having moved Jonathan Drouin out, there are zero point zero surprises on the protected list. Of the guys exposed it’s really hard to say who they are most likely to lose. Carter Ashton might be the happiest man in the Tampa organization after the Drouin trade, and he’s unprotected. Jake Dotchin and Andrej Suster are worth looking at, Jason Garrison two years ago might have been the gimmie pick, but he’s even older now. Slater Koekkoek is another name it might be worth exploring, but after a hard look at the team, I might pick up JT Brown if I decide to grab a forward from Tampa Bay.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Two and three years ago Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak were pilloried daily in the press. Today they make the protected list for a team that curbstomped all expectations last year. There are some names who were certainly contributors last year on the outside, but no one who if lost is going to cause the team to stagger back into a top five pick next year. This isn’t a surprise given how much of the teams success was carried by rookies and second year players. The biggest thing this list does is tell us who the front office thinks is at least a part of the short and medium term plans for the Maple Leafs.

There was a nice quiet day of trades in the NHL heading into the Expansion Draft that will allow the Vegas Golden Knights to plump up their organization.

4: In Division Trade

When you make a trade within your division, you’re almost certainly always saying that someone involved is irrelevant. When the Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev went down we learned something. We already knew the Canadiens make goofy trades for frequently non-hockey reasons. So we either learned that Yzerman doesn’t in anyway value the player he spent a year refusing to trade even when Drouin failed to report to the AHL, or that he’s revealed the depth of his respect for the Montreal organization.

It’s almost certainly the latter. Given the lack of skilled, speedy offensive centers who can keep up with Jonathan Drouin in Montreal, and who the head coach is, the math isn’t hard. Yzerman expects Drouin to be less impactful in Montreal than he was in Montreal. Clearing five point five million from his cap didn’t hurt, but sticking a player on a team who you can expect to produce at about seventy five cents on the dollar doesn’t happen often, when it’s a division rival its cheap at twice the price.

3: Commitment?

For years the Arizona Coyotes were wed in holy matrimony to Mike Smith, the Calgary Flames on the other hand had a soured soiree with Chad Johnson. Smith had Vezina quality seasons in a Coyotes uniform, and was also awful With nearly 500 regular season starts, the veteran has seen a lot, but its likely the 35 year still has a few good seasons on the clock.

Johnson has played only about a quarter as many games and is one of the better gents in a backup roll in the NHL. In a starting role he’s untested.

The question is are the Coyotes unwilling to keep their commitment for the final two years of Smith’s contract, or was the newest Calgary Flame wanting out of town due to the uncertainty that seems to be as thick in the wind as the sand?

 

2:  Franchise or Franc-choice?

Nathan Beaulieu was talked up in two languages as the best thing to happen to Montreal’s blueline in a long time just a couple years ago. In the Montreal tradition, like McDonagh, Subban, Weber, and half a dozen others expected to be NHL contributors, he’s moved along, and again to a division rival. The Buffalo Sabres who just added their general manager, add a defensemen picked 17th for a third round pick. Is Beaulieu going to achieve what McDonagh or Subban have? Probably not, but Yannick Webber was let go for nothing by the Montreal Canadiens, and like his fellow recovering Hab P.K. Subban, he just ran to the Cup finals.

With just over 200 games played in the NHL, we’re starting to see who he really is. Was it not speaking French? A lack of faith in him from Julien, or just another Habs blunder.

1: Two Little is Not Enough

The Coyotes did make a move. They should have made more. With teams like the Matt Dumba, and Hampus Lindholm or even Codi Ceci potentially available, the most vulnerable team to losing anyone did themselves a great disservice by not making a second notable move to enhance the defense. Even if they decided not to keep Dumba or another player after a trade, its certain the value he holds would allow them to pick up another piece or two to help them move in the right direction.

Terry Pegula finally got around to selecting a general manager for the Buffalo Sabres. The rumor mill was a little better than average this time with early word that Jason Botterill was the man who was getting the job. Botterhill comes out of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization where he was a fixture for about a decade. His stated goal is to build a contender every year at both the NHL and AHL levels.

Man is that delusional. In order to build a contending NHL team in the salary cap era you have to be constantly flushing talent out of your farm system. Yes there are exceptions, and Pittsburgh is one of them, but they aren’t common. Further more the biggest factors the Penguins have in their favor simply don’t apply to the Buffalo Sabres organization.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have cache they have the two of the top ten players in the NHL in Geno Malkin and Sidney Crosby. They have two cup wins in the last decade. They have an owner who won multiple cups, multiple MVPs, and who is one of those rare generational talents who actually understand’s the business side of the game as well. The other sneaky thing they do that is the kryptonite of other teams is bring players from their successful AHL franchise to their successful NHL franchise while they’re still young

While there are a lot of players who would like to play in one city for their whole career, the truth is that all of them simply want to play in the NHL the bulk of their career. If they can put a couple seasons with Malkin and Crosby on their resume, they know they will get better offers when it is time to go elsewhere. Those players also know that the next man up mantra isn’t just lip service. Unlike with the Red Wings or Boston Bruins the next roster spot will open up before players drafted into the system at 18 turn 25 or 30.

That window to get into the NHL and play for a bigger salary is longer and closer. This enables them to sign free agent out of the USHL, college, and the CHL. While Pittsburgh is hardly America’s premier metropolis, its total metroplitan area population is larger than that of Buffalo and Rochester combined. All those additional opportunities for entertainment are important when you have two or thee months off every year, and when you just want to take your billet parents or your family to a couple nice places.

Buffalo doesn’t have that winning tradition. While Eichel, Kane, Lehner, and O’Reilly are all well above average players, most hockey observers would rate the star appeal of Malkin and Crosby higher, and some would say that either Penguin outweighs the four Sabres.

Am I saying there’s no one in the world who will want to play hockey in Rochester and Buffalo? No. Just that the pool of talent is so much smaller that building not one but two contenders is likely beyond the ability of anyone, much less a newly minted general manager who like his ownership group has done two things when in the big chair. One of them is ‘jack’ and the other starts with ‘s’.

George McPhee as general manager of the Washington Capitals had a well earned reputation for loving Russian players. It’s no surprise there are reports he’s slid his finger into every vatrushka in Russia to see which he likes best. For years it seemed there more Russians than North Americas in the Capitals lockerroom. Don’t be surprised if there are two, three or even five Russian players on the ice when the Vegas Golden Knights go for broke on the very first night they play for real.

But he’s not going to build a cap complaint, or more importantly a competitive NHL team out of KHL dissidents. He needs to take a look at talented players in the NHL right now, who for one reason or another aren’t a fit in the city they are playing now. For all the rumors and swirling talk about players like Eichel wanting out of Buffalo or Kucherov calling out his team in Tampa, no one seriously thinks either of those players is being moved.

But there are a pair of forwards, both on the opposite end of the continent from the Golden Knights that might just be perfect for a team that needs youth, skill, hope, and names the fans and media are familiar with. The elder of the two is a geriatric twenty-five year old who has speed and agility that easily place him in the top five percent in both categories league wide, passing ability that puts him on an even more exclusive, and no end of frustration on the Boston Bruins. The younger of those players reminds many observers of a larger Sergie Samsanov. He’s thickly built without any excess, he’s agile, he’s got a dynamic scoring touch, and speaks with a nearly palpable accent, despite where he was born.

It’s impossible to wander onto any Canadiens or Bruins focused forum and avoid links, rumors, and stories about the imminent trade of Ryan Spooner and Alex Galchenyuk. These two have for varying reasons managed to disappoint in the markets that drafted them. I think the case against Spooner is probably a better one, but even there when he played with guys who could skate with him, and were active shooters and didn’t possess the same pass first (and second, and third, and possibly fourth) mentality he does he did really well. A lot was made over the downturn in Galchenyuk’s production this year. After a 30 goal season I think many expected him to eclipse the forty goal mark in short order. He didn’t, and while his goal scoring was down, his actual points per game production was up.

Then came the playoffs. His first taste of post season action where Galchenyuk had to be considered in the top two or three as offensive threats, and he got smothered by Ottawa, he still produced at half a point per game, but that wasn’t enough to mollify Montreal observers. Spooner who has playing between guys who are more grinders than finesse players and who haven’t a hope of keeping up with him in speed was supplanted by Sean Kuraly in the playoffs and has likely played his last game in a Boston Bruins uniform.

McPhee could do so very much worse than to acquire this pair of forwards. The two have name recognition, playoff experience, are old enough to have passed through Vegas as adults a couple times, and both are almost certainly in need of a fresh start. I can’t imagine GM GM building a team that wasn’t speed and skill based, and these two fit the bill. I doubt the Bruins would expect to get more than a second round pick for Spooner who is an RFA with arbitration rights this summer. A Galchenyuk acquisition might take a little more, but is even a first and a third too much to pay for a 23 year old who leads the 2012 draft class in points and has a 30 goal season on his resume?

Duke Reid and Vadim Shipachyov need team mates, Vegas needs skill, recognition, and youth. Galchenyuk and Spooner likely need to play for their second NHL team. Together they could make beautiful hockey.

I’ll open the dance by stating the obvious; unless Krejci or Bergeron is being moved out, Duchene is entirely the wrong guy for the Boston Bruins. Not for anything that he is, but for what he isn’t; and that’s better (when healthy) than Krejci or Bergeron. He probably will put up more points on a playoff quality team, but he’s not the topic of discussion.

I like Gabriel Landeskog. He’s a very solid player. He’s physical, he’s willing, he plays in all three zones at at least a passable level. He’s been pretty healthy over the course of his NHL. He’s put together three straight seasons with more than 20 goals. He’s even the captain, named so at a ludicrously young age.

Why is he probably not the best available winger? That’s easy, I can name one who has very similar physical attributes, is faster, meaner, and has something to prove.

Here’s the tale of the tape:

Career goals per game: Landeskog: 0.278 vs Winger X: 0.312

Hits per game (2011-present): Landeskog: 2.2 Winger X: 2.6

Goals by strength: Landeskog: 80 ES, 27PP 4SH 16 1stG 4OTG 16GWG Winger X: 94ES 16PPG 4SHG 22 1stG 3 OTG 19 GWG

Shot attempt %: Landeskog 49.71% vs Winger X 50.64%

Goals per 60: Landeskog 0.89 Winger X 1.05

Minor penalties drawn per 60: Landeskog 0.94 vs Winger X 1.21

SHTOI/G: Landeskog and Winger X 1:04

TOI/GP: Landeskog 18:47 vs Winger X 19:31

Cap hit next year: Winger X is $321,429 less expensive.

Why did I pick the stats I did? Partly because the biggest need from a winger would be goals, followed by physicality. And because any player that is going to survive in Boston will need to be able to contribute in all three zones.  In some people’s minds Winger X has a few marks against him. On his first team, in a city not very friendly to the melanin blessed, he had a reputation for trouble making which may have spilled over to his current team. On balance, none of the accusations in either city have ever been proved in court. And of course of the two, Winger X is the one who put together a 30 goal season at all, much less while under 21.

Evander Kane

Some of the best remaining talent in the RFA pool is still unsigned. Some of them may have plans to travel and just aren’t doing business related things right now. Others are deep in training and wanting to justify a better contract by arriving at camp at a better level of fitness than before. For others, maybe management of their teams thinks they can out wait the players and get them to sign on the teams terms.

Nikita Kucharev is three years into his NHL career and has proven himself in both the regular and post season. In the last two seasons he’s averaged 29.5 points and 65.5 points in the regular season playing a bit over 18 minutes last year, and putting up over a point per game in his last playoff run just this spring. He is arbitration eligible, and if there is or was a case for anyone getting an offer sheet in this crop of RFA’s, it should be him.

Some would argue Johnny Gaudreau is the top talent in the RFA class not Kucharev, and it isn’t a clear cut choice. “Johnny Hockey” averages slightly more points per game, and is playing with largely less teammates. He does however play more time at almost 20 minutes per game. In his one playoff run, he did put up strong numbers at 4-5-9 over 11 games. Small, slight, and hard to contain, its hard to imagine he’s going to have anything but a large impact on the game for years to come. Like Kucharev he is arbitration eligible.

The Buffalo Sabres have been busy stocking the shelves with UFAs and trade pieces, not to mention the odd draft pick or two. What they haven’t done is sign Rasmus Ristolainen, a defenseman who has they found use for nearly 26 minutes a night. Not yet playoff tested, but last season his points total doubled from the previous year. The 21 year old Finnish defender was tops on the team in shorthanded time on ice, tops for defensemen in powerplay time on ice, and first overall in time on ice for the team by five hundred minutes. In all that ice time he racked up half a point a game on a pretty awful team. This year with a bolstered forward group, he has a genuine shot at sixty points if they get him resigned.

Jacob Trouba is often overlooked in the NHL landscape. Being on the Jets lineup is not an easy thing for a defenseman playing in front of a porous goaltending tandem. Trouba was second on the team in total ice time, and shorthanded time on ice. To go with that he had a strong PDO, led the team in blocked shots, finished more shifts in the offensive zone than he started there, and was just a bit behind the team leader (Tyler Myers) in on ice save percentage.

Hampus Lindholm is one of the best unknown talents in the game. If he played further east he’d be better known, and appreciated. The smooth skating Swede has been part of the wolf pack of talented young defensemen residing on the Anaheim blueline. He led the defense in games played, time on ice, and even strength TOI. If the Ducks don’t sign him they won’t be as damaged by his loss as the Jets would be without Trouba or the Sabres without Ristalienen, but they are very, very unlikely to be better.

The Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes has been the most interesting off ice story in hockey for almost a year. His choice not to sign with the rising Nashville Predators his irked some, and left others salivating in the hopes that he would play in their favorite franchise. The rumor and fantasy mills have focused on three seeming front runners, The Toronto Maple Leafs where he has a brother in the system and a father on the staff, the Buffalo Sabres who have his rights currently, and of course his home town Boston Bruins.

New Jersey shouldn’t be overlooked when evaluating where he might want to end up. One of the things that is most striking about his choice not to go to Nashville is that the narrative all along has been that he wanted to choose his own destiny, and forge his own career. While some might see this as a fit of pique, I think it shows an understanding of the NHL and what it takes to succeed; skill fit, wit, and chemistry.

If he goes to Toronto, he gets to play in a hockey mad city that lives half an atom outside the skin of its resident avatars of the state religion. It’s a pressure cooker, its intrusive, and it has no history of success in his life time. The current leadership aside, the head coach isn’t used to building teams, the current general manager is used to being the whole show, and the team President is best known in his post playing days as the Dean of Discipline to the NHL. One might very successfully make the case that’s a potentially if not inherently volatile mix at the top of the organization. Should he sign there he will be making it harder for his own brother to get a shot at the NHL. Yes, it is quite unlikely they would both be aimed at the same position, but there are only so many slots on the roster. There is also the specter of nepotism that will hang over him if he does land there, no matter how good he is.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are pretty much a non starter not because he wouldn’t want to play with Phil Kessel, Malkin, Crosby and Letang, but because from a cap perspective its comes pretty close to attempting to scale Everest in flip flops and a loin cloth. In order for him to get into the top six, they likely need to move a well known, expensive player. Chris Kunitz is well known, well respected and thirty six years old with only this season under contract. Pascal Dupuis’s contract is potentially trade able, but they would likely have to give up a good piece to go with it. After that is the question of moving either Carl Hagelin or Conor Sheary, financially Hagelin being moved makes the most sense, talent wise, and long term cap implications are debatable.

While many would list the Boston Bruins as the default choice, there are issues there too. Playing in your hometown is an enormous amount of pressure with zero down time, summer isn’t safe to be home, after a bad game everyone is upset, after a win everyone wants to buy you a drink, and everyone knows someone who knows you. Add to that the Bruins have coach with (an overblown) reputation for being tough on young players, one of the top ten left wings in the game in Brad Marchand, and the fact that the team desperately needs defense good enough to be paid well, and Vesey is probably not a priority to the Bruins. Another factor might be how many current local boys are in the system. I’m sure he’s friends with some, rivalries or worse, that started in early childhood can be hard to leave behind.

And then there is Buffalo. The Sabres have quite a bit of impressive young talent. Including Evander Kane, a left wing who has scored 30 goals in the NHL at a young age, plays physically, and is locked into a top six position, unless a coach is feeling like moving on to warmer pastures. They also have veteran Matt Moulson, another left wing, a three time 30 goal scorer who has had a down couple of years but can almost certainly be expected to be a big part of the leadership group both on and off the ice. The scrappy utility forward Tyler Ennis will hold onto a top 9 position one way or another as well. It is unlikely Vesey considers his chances of being more of an impact player in season one than Evander Kane, and a healthy, motivated Matt Moulson is nothing to sneeze at, which exclusive of Ennis, and other prospects makes his chances at significant minutes slim.

What does New Jersey offer?

  • They are close enough to home to be a short flight,  and manageable train or car ride for himself, friends, and family.
  • A big enough city to have night life and amenities.
  • Far enough down the media frenzy food chain to have breathing space.
  • High end team mates like Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique.
  • A team that is without him better than the Leafs and Sabres
  • Highly respected veteran leaders like Cammelleri, Zajac, and Fiddler
  • Less competition for dollars against the cap in the mid term future.

In short, for a lot of reasons the New Jersey Devils might just be team he lands with. They aren’t the sexy pick, the easy pick, or the one what might just let him ride coattails to an early career Stanley Cup, but they have a lot of things none of the other teams have. Realistically, the Devils could have won a half dozen of the games they lost in regulation last year. With 96 points, and just three of the wins coming in regulation, they would have beaten out the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card spot last spring.