A Die By the Blade blog posted a picture of a billboard in Buffalo that was eventually picked up by Yahoo's Sean Leahy and spread to a much larger audience. On it were the words "Buffalo Loves Vesey." The Vesey, of course, is in regards to Jimmy Vesey, the recent Harvard graduate whom the Sabres own the rights to until August 15 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
A lot has been said and written about the left winger with an NHL-ready frame and two strong developmental years for the Crimson that lead to 56 goals and 104 points in his last 70 games as a junior and senior. There's no question that he'd fit right into what Buffalo is doing and spot in the top-nine is legit at this point in time with the strong possibility that he'd have an opportunity as either Jack Eichel or Ryan O'Reilly's wingman in the top-six.
The Sabres just met with Vesey in Boston last week as Sabres GM Tim Murray, head coach Dan Bylsma and assistant director of scouting Jerry Forton, who helped recruit Vesey when he was an assistant coach at Harvard, all headed to Beantown to make their pitch. The trio represented hockey and the organization and presumably had answers to the questions Vesey had concerning where he fit into the grand scheme of things.
That was important as Vesey is looking at the next two years, his entry-level contract years, as a springboard to a longer, and presumably a more lucrative, NHL contract coming out on the other side. One of Vesey's agents, Peter Fish told the Buffalo News that "the meeting went very well" while also telling WGR550 that Vesey felt "very comfortable" with Murray and Bylsma. "However," continued Fish, "until we sit down with Jimmy and fully digest everything we heard [Thursday], I can’t really comment on how it might affect Aug. 15th.”
The Sabres did well in their sales pitch. Murray, whose known to keep it brief and to the point, said of the meeting to The News, “We went down there, we talked to him about the city and the organization, then we came home.”
That would be the proper amount of pitch without any overwhelming pressure being put on a young man staring down the first big decision of his professional career. What's not proper is the over-the-top "Buffalo Loves Vesey" billboard from Northtown Automotive. Although it attracts attention, in the end, smothering affection like that hurts the process.
As an example, take the Toronto Maple Leafs pitch for then unrestricted free agent Steven Stamkos, a Toronto-area native.
Rare is the time when a free agent of his caliber hits the open market and there was no small amount of interest from a number of teams including the Buffalo Sabres who talked with the Stamkos camp during the open period on draft weekend. The Montreal Canadians were also said to have talked to them and Stamkos also had meetings with Toronto and then Detroit lined up.
But Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun wrote today that the heavy hand of the Leafs soured Stamkos not only on Toronto, but on the process as well. Simmons cites "numerous NHL people who attempted to woo Stamkos" as the basis for his piece.
"The availability of [Stamkos] all but ended after a Monday night meeting in Toronto that included Maple Leafs ownership, front office executives, Toronto Mayor John Tory, Canadian Tire CEO Michael Medline and others from the corporate community," wrote Simmons. "It was apparently an impressive sell with all kind of bells and whistles — just not impressive to Stamkos."
Even though the 26 yr. old Stamkos is an eight-year NHL veteran, facing that kind of crush from Toronto had to be startling. I'm not sure any player could come out of meeting like that expecting to perform even to the lowest of his own expectations were he to sign with any team much less his hometown team. According to Simmons, "He left the meeting with the Leafs, and apparently turned to his advisors and said: 'No more meetings.'"
The gist of this, other than the utter absurdity at the Center of the Hockey Universe for deploying an army like this to woo Stamkos, is that players want to play hockey where they feel comfortable and the best pitch is simply to lay out what there is to offer and let the chips fall where they may. No amount of bells and whistles and/or socio-political dignitaries and/or money-figures and/or billboards will change a player's perception of what's inside the hockey department and how he'll reach his potential as a hockey player.
The Northtown Auto Group, the Mayor of Toronto and others outside the hockey community needed to back off and let hockey people do their jobs. Although Vesey is no Stamkos, they are both humans and will go somewhere else if the pressure's too much. That's what free agency, or in these two cases, impending free agency, allows a player, the choice of where he wants to play.
Why suffocate them?