A little more than a week ago, someone asked forward Jimmy Vesey, who’d been starting to pick up his game a little bit, whether he was the type who had set goals for what he’d wanted to accomplish every season.
“Yeah,’’ Vesey said. “I always say 20 [goals] and 20 [assists] . . . I got some goals as of late, and I’m still on a pretty good pace. I’ve predominantly played as the third line left wing and I’ve been up as of lately, so I’ve got to make the most of that. But I think 20 and 20 is a good number for me.’’
That was before the NHL trade deadline, though; before the Rangers traded away the beloved Mats Zuccarello and Vesey’s childhood friend, Kevin Hayes. Since those two, and Adam McQuaid, were traded away, Vesey got promoted to the top line, in Zuccarello’s spot on the right wing. And in his first three games on the top line, Vesey had a goal and an assist in each, and he may be readjusting his sights.
“A lot has changed,’’ Vesey said with a smile when asked about his 20-20 objective. “I’m hot now. I think that’s always been a goal, or a benchmark, for me. And when you’re playing first line and first power play, you get more opportunities to score, and, I guess we’ll see where I finish.’’
At 6-3 and 199 pounds, Vesey has always had the physical gifts to be a solid NHL power forward. But he’s yet to have a breakout year. He had 16 goals as a rookie in 2016-17 and 17 last season. With 16 through 63 games this season, plus a career-high 18 assists (and a career-high 34 points) he’s on the verge of maybe taking the next step in his progression as an NHL player. His current totals project to 21 goals and 23 assists this season, but his coach, David Quinn has said all season he thinks Vesey is capable of more.
Confidence, Quinn says, has been the thing that has been holding Vesey back.
“As we’ve talked about, Jimmy’s confidence is something that is hard for him to keep,’’ Quinn said. “He’s a guy that gets down on himself easily, and he was going through a tough stretch about a month ago, and ever since the Bruins game [a 4-3 shootout win on Feb. 6], he’s really taken off. I think he’s worked hard at the mental aspect of the game, he’s moving past mistakes – mistakes are going to happen in this game – and to me, he’s just playing with a lot more conviction. There’s a pace to his game in all three zones; he’s more decisive. He certainly doesn’t look like he’s second-guessing himself in any situation.’’
Vesey doesn’t argue about the confidence thing. He owns it.
“I’m pretty hard on myself,’’ he said. “I mean, I want to be the best that I can be, and you know, it’s tough when you’re in a slump. But the thing about the NHL that I’ve learned is, you can’t feel bad for yourself, as a team, or as an individual. Because you’re playing again, two nights later, so the league’s pretty unforgiving that way. So you’ve got to stay even-keeled. And it’s tough to do, but I think the best players are able to keep themselves in check even when they’re not getting that they want.’’
But what made Vesey finally figure this all out? Just maturity, he says. He’s 25 now, and a third-year pro. It’s all part of the learning process.
“I think I’ve been, overall, better at it this year than my first two,’’ he said. “I’ve found a way to be more productive this year; more consistent. I heard coach say that, since the Boston game, I’ve been good. And I think that game is kind of when it all clicked. I’ve, I guess, run with that confidence. The other thing is, physically, I feel good. I’m in better shape this year, so I’m able to play more minutes… and everything kind of comes together. And it obviously helps when you’re playing with Mika [Zibanejad] and ‘Kreids’ [Chris Kreider].’’
A natural left wing, Vesey is playing on the right side of the top line now, and making it work. Against the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday, Vesey —a lefthanded shot — had an assist on the first goal of the game, when he drove down the right wing boards and sent a backhand pass across the middle to Zibanejad, who backhanded a shot in for the game’s first goal. If the trades of Zuccarello and Hayes offered Vesey opportunity, then it is up to him to take advantage of it.
“Yeah, 100 percent,’’ he said. “Last year, at the end of the year, it was kind of the same thing. I got hot when I was moved up in the lineup and – I mean, we traded those guys away, but we’ve still got to go on the ice and play the rest of the season. And, for me, I’m trying to take that opportunity and run with it, and  games left, I’m trying to finish strong.’’