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Vesey’s Struggles Continue

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The Sabres need more from Jimmy Vesey as depth scoring continues to be an issue

2019 NHL Global Series - Sweden - Tampa Bay Lightning v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

This summer, when the Buffalo Sabres sent a 2020 3rd-round draft pick to the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Jimmy Vesey, the acquisition drew mixed reviews. Some were excited to see the team add what they perceived to be a potential 20-goal scorer (even though he had never once reached that benchmark in his three years with the Rangers). Others still held a bizarre grudge against him for electing not to sign with the Sabres when Tim Murray initially traded for his rights in 2016.

Analytically inclined members of the fan base expressed some concern over his negative defensive impacts, which seemed to negate every one of his modestly positive offensive metrics since turning pro. Through the first 17 games of the 2019-20 season, Vesey looks less like a potential 20-goal presence, and more like the net-negative impact player that we saw in New York. It’s still early, and some players might take longer to adjust to the new system, but at the moment, an argument can be made that Vesey has been the least effective Buffalo forward at 5-on-5 thus far.

We’ll start by examining his performance as a shooter to this point. For a player whom many expected to provide some semblance of a goal-scoring impact, he has been virtually useless in that regard. Not only has he failed to register a goal as a member of the blue-and-gold, but he’s failed to position himself in high-danger areas with any degree of regularity.

As evidenced above, his expected-goals rate has taken a sharp, continuous nosedive since the beginning of the year, and has only very recently experienced a modest uptick. He positioned himself for a few solid opportunities during the Global Series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but ultimately failed to convert on those chances.

What’s interesting is the impact he’s had on his most consistent linemates, Conor Sheary and Casey Mittelstadt (and vice-versa). Stating that their respective Corsi numbers have been better away from Vesey than alongside him doesn’t come as much of a surprise. What is a bit more intriguing is the fact that Vesey’s Corsi metrics are actually notably better away from those two.

As a trio, they’ve produced a Corsi-for percentage of 40.0, and an expected-goals percentage of 31.61 so far, which is downright dreadful. However, in the time Vesey has spent without Sheary and Mittelstadt, his individual numbers increase to 51.13 and 44.84, respectively.

Obviously, it isn’t an earth-shattering difference, but it’s still significantly better. Ralph Krueger has split them up to an extent over the past few games, so perhaps he recognized that line simply wasn’t working. Still, as it stands, Vesey ranks dead-last among Sabres forwards from an adjusted expected goals-for standpoint. Regardless of who he lines up with moving forward, he needs to be better individually.

As previously mentioned, one of the big concerns upon Vesey’s arrival pertained to his shortcomings defensively. That trend (which has been the case throughout his entire professional career) has remained consistent. Not only is he contributing less of an offensive impact with the Sabres, but he’s given back every bit of offensive production and then some, with his abysmal defensive impacts.

To extrapolate on the overall point-production issue, the base-stats impact extends beyond his poor play at even-strength. Vesey’s special-teams deployment has also been a little different under Kruger, compared to his time with the Rangers. From 2016-2019, Vesey was a contributor on the power-play in New York, registering 15 of his 90 career points on the man-advantage. So far, he has not appeared at all on the Sabres’ second power-play unit.

None of this is particularly surprising given what was already known about him coming in, but it still begs the question; why would Jason Botterill part with an asset in order to acquire this player? Jason Pominville, a proven positive impact winger who is still capable of producing in a middle-six role, likely would have cost a similar amount of cap space to retain for another year as a free agent. Nothing about Vesey’s performance so far has justified the acquisition, or the decision to opt for him over Pominville. Maybe Botterill was hoping to drive up Vesey’s value in a contract year and turn him around for a profit, but even that is (and always was) a stretch.

So what’s the solution? How can the Sabres get the most out of this player while also keeping him from negatively impacting his linemates? One solution might be to start playing him opposite Sam Reinhart, a forward with whom he has produced solid numbers in small doses this season. Through 23:21 together at 5-on-5, Vesey and Reinhart currently hold a Corsi-for percentage of 56.82, and an xGF of 52.48-percent.

Given the modest sample size, there’s no way to tell if that is sustainable, but Reinhart is one of the few players on the Sabres roster who has actually been better (analytically) with Vesey than without him. Placing him with Vesey and either Marcus Johansson or Evan Rodrigues down the middle might be worth trying for an extended period of time. Not only could it optimize a struggling asset, but it would give Reinhart the opportunity to drive his own line, something he’s certainly capable of doing away from Jack Eichel. To date, a strong argument can be made that he’s been the team’s most consistent, reliable forward through 17 games.

Only a few options exist that would help account for Vesey’s defensive shortcomings while also optimizing his offensive skill set (without breaking up the ever-effective “LOG” line). Either way, a trade that was head-scratching from the beginning, continues to look ill advised early on.

While he Vesey proven somewhat useful as a penalty-killer this season, that’s not why he was brought in. Registering a mere two assists in 14 games-played to start a contract year is not what either party had in mind. The Sabres have now gone five straight games without a goal from a forward not named Reinhart, Eichel, Skinner, or Olofsson. That’s simply unacceptable, and if players like Vesey don’t start becoming part of the solution in that regard, the team will continue to fall in the standings.

RAPM Chart courtesy of Evolving-Hockey

xGF Graph and Shot Map courtesy of Charting Hockey

Corsi, Relative xGF, and Linemate Metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick