Is Jimmy Vesey a sure thing?

Jimmy Vesey has undoubtedly had himself a great 2015-2016 campaign for the Harvard Crimson. With 35 points in just 23 games this season, Vesey is currently ranked 12th in NCAA scoring while playing as many as eight fewer games than some of his competition in some cases and ranks fifth in points per game (1.52) behind Michigan freshman stand-out Kyle Connor (1.76), New Hampshire’s Andrew Poturalski (1.57) Robert Morris’ Zac Lynch and Bentley’s Max French (both with 1.56). The Nashville Predators prospect has undeniable talent, making him one of the front-runners for college hockey’s most prized award given to the year’s most outstanding player: The Hobey Baker.

Vesey is going to have stiff competition this year for the Hobey, competing against a skilled field including Conner and goaltenders Cam Johnson of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks and Chris Nell of the Bowling Green Falcons, but most hockey pundits think Vesey has an inside track after being a runner-up last year behind NHL rookie sensation Jack Eichel.

But does being college hockey’s most outstanding player guarantee success at the next level? The Nashville Predators (or the Toronto Maple Leafs if you choose to believe rumor mongers and conspiracy theorists) certainly hope Vesey can.

I recently took a look at the past twenty years of Hobey Baker winners to see if success at the NCAA level translates to the NHL level.

Previous Hobey Baker Winners

YearPlayerPos.SchoolFresh.Soph.JuniorSeniorCollege totalsNHL totals
1996Brian BoninCMinnesota284463812160
1997Brendan MorrisonCMichigan48767288284601
1998Chris DruryLWBoston University27676257213615
1999Jason KrogCNew Hampshire2067668523859
2000Mike MottauDBoston College2349424315758
2001Ryan Miller GMichigan StateN/AN/AN/AN/A0N/A
2002Jordan LeopoldDMinnesota23244948144214
2003Peter SejnaLWColorado College585082N/A19011
2004Junior LessardRWMinnesota-Duluth123037631424
2005Marty SertichCColorado College293964501820
2006Matt CarleDDenver264453N/A123273
2007Ryan DuncanLWND365740391720
2008Kevin PorterCCMichigan2438586318358
2009Matt GilroyDBoston University82621379248
2010Blake GeoffrionCWisconsin630285011413
2011Andy MieleLWMiami (OH)143144711602
2012Jack ConnollyCMinnesota Duluth294959601970
2013Drew LeBlancCSt. Cloud State153139501350
2014Johnny GaudreauLWBoston College445180N/A175112
2015Jack EichelCBoston University71N/AN/AN/A7134
2016?Jimmy VeseyCHarvard18225835??

 

Now, this is the point where I put a disclaimer that every player is different and some players have a better chance at succeeding at the NHL level than others based on what kind of physical and mental tools they can leverage at the professional level. Still, I find these results very interesting.

As you can see, there is a huge disparity between some of the top players on this list (Drury, Miller and Gaudreau) and some players that were never successful in making it to the next level (Duncan, Sertich and Connolly). You will also notice some differences in playing styles from the super small and skilled (Miele, Gilroy) and the more conventional body type for an NHL player (Morrison, Carle) and how certain players’ abilities may have worked in college but not the NHL level.

So what does this mean for Vesey?

When I look at these numbers, I see some patterns between Vesey and some previous Hobey Baker winners. I am particularly interested in when players made ‘that jump’ from being good players to great players. Many of the guys who found success at the NHL level always had the ‘it’ factor even when they were youngsters, particularly Drury, Mottau, Carle, Gaudreau and Morisson. All of these guys were phenomenal scorers, even when they were sophomores or freshmen.

This kind of career arch does not match Vesey’s development. Now, different times, different players, but more comparable players would be Bonin, Leopold, Senja, Sertich and Porter, none of which went on to have particularly storied NHL careers.

So are you saying Vesey is going to bust?

No, not even close.

Over the past year, Preds fans have fallen in love with Vesey’s potential and surprising development. Who can blame them really? Vesey has blossomed into a great two-way hockey player with an impressive scoring touch. Last year, he looked like a man playing against boys at Harvard, carrying his team to the NCAA tournament before falling to Nebraska-Omaha in the first round of play. So far this season, Vesey is on pace to beat his year past season and looks to make the jump to the NHL after finishing his senior year.

The pit fall, however, is Vesey is probably not going to be an All-Star level forward some fans are expecting after seeing Johnny Hockey and Eichel light up the NCAA these past two seasons. I think a lot of fans expect him to step in and be a top 6 forward when in reality, that is a very unrealistic expectation for the young forward.

Equally misguided but on the opposite spectrum of things, a lot of people have said almost all NCAA Hobey Baker winners have busted at the NHL level and Vesey is going to be another one. I find this generalization to be just a little insulting to some former NHL greats (including guys named Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek) who have come from the NCAA system but never won the Hobey. Regardless, why are there so many Hobey winners who did not make it at the NHL level?

I tend to think about it this way: there are a lot of quarterbacks who succeed in college on their athleticism or system alone, but are unable to play at the NFL level either because their talent wasn’t enough to get them to succeed about more talented defensive players or their mental game wasn’t strong enough to handle the stress of a more complicated style of play. Many NCAA greats did not succeed at the NHL level, but the ones that did are some of the biggest names in the sport.

In truth, Vesey lies probably somewhere in the middle of these extreme views and will be a solid NHL contributor for the Predators or a different team.

I’ll leave you with this parting thought: the Predators currently have two former NCAA studs on their roster, Colin Wilson and Craig Smith. While Wilson didn’t stick around for his upperclassman years, he put up similar numbers to Vesey’s junior year his sophomore year (55pts). Similarly, Smith only played two years in the NCAA before getting called up to the big club, notching 43 points in 41 games at Wisconsin. I see a lot of Colin Wilson in Jimmy Vesey, though the later probably has a slightly more developed scoring touch. If Vesey turns out like Wilson, I think most Preds fans will be pretty happy about it.

Now whether or not Vesey signs with the Preds, well, that’s a different article altogether.


 

Photo credit: Kristen Jerkins