FOXBOROUGH — His freshly printed Harvard diploma sits among the clutter on the kitchen counter at home in North Reading. Between workouts and skating sessions, he has yet to find time to get to The Coop, pick out a suitable frame, but surely will toss it in with his shirt, tie, and skates when he packs up to begin his career journey in September.
For now, Jimmy Vesey, NHL free agent to be, just isn’t sure where that journey will begin.
“Obviously, on Friday, all the big names are going to go off the board,’’ Vesey said as the weekend approached, noting how Day 1 of NHL free agency ultimately could influence where he’ll sign his first pro contract. “Then I can really sit back and start looking at roster depth charts.’’
Only 23 years old, and his NHL rights recently acquired by the Buffalo Sabres, Vesey was not among the many players on Friday who were able to select their future NHL employers. His target date is Aug. 15, another key graduation date, when he plans to declare free agency after playing four seasons at Harvard, his NCAA tenure negating his obligation to sign with Nashville, the club that selected him in the NHL’s 2012 entry draft.
Less than two weeks ago, Nashville flipped Vesey’s rights to the Sabres, the disappointed Predators salvaging a third-round draft pick for a player whose talent tantalized them with the thought he could be among their top six forwards for 2016-17. The Sabres gained exclusive rights to talk to Vesey — and already have — until Aug. 15. But based on what he said the other night, following a fast-paced scrimmage at the Foxboro Sports Center, he has every intention of reaching Aug. 15 unsigned by Buffalo and quickly choosing the team he believes fits him best.
“I’m still going to go to free agency,’’ he said, “and explore all my options.’’
His choices should be many. Virtually every one of the NHL’s 30 teams (31 as of next summer when Las Vegas joins the party) can use scoring touch. In his final two seasons with the Crimson, the 6-foot-2-inch, 205-pound Vesey delivered 104 points across 70 games, a pace that, in theory, would deliver 122 points over an 82-game season.
No one produces at that pace in today’s NHL. League MVP Patrick Kane topped the NHL scoring charts with 106 points in 2015-16. But even half that rate would make Vesey a key offensive contributor, which is why, come Aug. 15, he is expected to be dangling suitors on a string with the same finesse he dangled pucks in the Crimson offensive end for four years.
Once some of the key UFAs fall into place this weekend, said Vesey, he will use the next six weeks to scrutinize which teams he thinks best fit his game, and then hopes to choose quickly.
“I guess probably it will take a couple of days,’’ he said, noting he plans either to meet face-to-face with team representatives who travel to Boston or connect via phone interviews. “I’ll talk to the coach, the GM, stuff like that, then weigh my options.’’
Meanwhile, he will spend the bulk of his summer at the Foxboro Sports Center, working out 4-5 days a week on his strength and conditioning, and his power skating. The stress of studying as a government major at Harvard has slowly dissipated. He can close the books on de Tocqueville and concentrate fully on the NHL, fulfilling a dream that began not long after he signed up for Charlestown Youth Hockey.
“I took two full months off the ice,’’ said Vesey, who in April was named the Hobey Baker Award winner as the NCAA’s top hockey player. “I started skating about a month ago, and now I am back into the full swing. That [break] was longer than usual. Our season [at Harvard] went late — they take ice out of the rink for graduation stuff — and last year I went to the World Championships, so I didn’t have much of a break at all. Two full months [off skates] kind of rejuvenated me.’’
Vesey was back flying Wednesday night, his trademark speed evident all over the ice as a member of Team Harlow in the arena’s Pro League, which is a heady collection of more than 100 local players who play for NHL, AHL, and college teams. This is the fourth summer that Vesey has skated on the same line as Jack Eichel, the onetime Boston University star who edged him in the 2015 Hobey Baker voting and then went on to a dazzling rookie campaign last season with the Sabres.
The sight of the Vesey-Eichel combination (with Nick Lappin, AHL Albany, filling out the trio) would have Sabres fans fogging up every pane of glass in the arena’s three rinks, just thinking what it might be like if they were to team up in Buffalo. The Buffalo fandom embraced Eichel in his rookie season, and will spend these next six weeks sending vibes down Route 90, hoping that he can recruit a fellow Bay Stater 450 miles west to the City of Good Neighbors.
“He’s told me they have a young team, and stuff like that,’’ said Vesey, constantly set up by velvety feeds from Eichel during the scrimmage. “And that it’s a good place to play, with passionate fans. But he said he’s not going to harass me or anything . . . obviously, it’s my decision and that’s that.’’
His checklist when considering where to play, said Vesey, will include the prospective team’s coach, its style of play, and whether both sides could envision him playing among the top six forwards and also on the power play. He’s not only looking at his first NHL deal, but the next one, one that will be all the more lucrative if he has goals and assists as bona fides.
Though Vesey won’t identify who he thinks will make his short list, it’s likely Boston will be on it, along with the likes of Toronto (where Jim Vesey, his father, is a scout), Buffalo, the three teams in metro New York, possibly along with Philadelphia and perhaps St. Louis. His father had a brief NHL tour and has a number of pals in Blues hockey operations.
“I have a couple of teams in mind, but my dad’s said he is going to let me make the decision,’’ said Vesey. “I think that’s fair. I am 23 years old at this point, so I am a man on my own and . . . I think I’d like to be in the Northeast a little bit.
The free agent period has begun. Jimmy Vesey is making his list, checking it twice, and considering all the possibilities. The only sure thing is that he believes he owes to himself to see what Aug. 15 will bring.