New York Rangers: Can Jimmy Vesey Avoid the Rookie Wall?

New York Rangers rookie Jimmy Vesey is in a scoring slump. Is this because of the dreaded rookie wall, or is there more to the story?

A major story for the New York Rangers in the 2016-17 season has been the astounding depth they have at the forward position. As a result, prized rookie Jimmy Vesey has often been lost in the mix, bouncing around the lineup and even finding himself playing on the fourth line at times.

Vesey started off his rookie campaign with a bang, playing alongside Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. He scored 5 goals and 1 assist in 9 October games, before adding another 3 goals and 5 assists in 15 games in November. There were some quiet Calder Trophy rumblings at that point, but those quickly disappeared.

After November, Vesey’s production fell off a cliff: only 4 goals and 2 assists in 26 games. Partly, this is due to his linemates: he went from playing with Nash and Stepan to seeing more time with the likes of Brandon Pirri, Matt Puempel, and Oscar Lindberg. While all three of those players have some touches of offensive talent, they’re not exactly 60-point scorers.

Now, Vesey wouldn’t be the first rookie to see a slump in the second half of the season. Indeed, many college players are used to shorter, less rigorous schedules and struggle in the back half.

So, what can we expect from Vesey going forward? Comparing him to similar, recent college-trained rookies might give us an idea.

The obvious first choice is Vesey’s teammate, Kevin Hayes. Like Vesey, Hayes was a former first-round pick who chose to play out his college career and become a free agent. The Rangers won the bidding war, and Hayes stepped into the lineup right away.

As usual, the surface numbers don’t tell the whole story.

However, Hayes appeared to buck the college trend: the first half of his rookie season was markedly worse than the second half. Before the All Star break, Hayes had 16 points in 41 games; he scored 11 goals and added 18 assists for 29 points in 38 games afterward.

But, as usual, the surface numbers don’t tell the whole story. Hayes spent much of the first half of the 2014-15 season languishing on a fourth line that featured Tanner Glass. Once he secured the third-line center position, Hayes’ numbers skyrocketed.

While Vesey’s time on the Rangers’ fourth line has featured more talent than the likes of Tanner Glass, it’s more or less a flip-flopped example of just how much ice time and teammates can affect a rookie’s performance.

But Hayes isn’t the only recent college-to-NHL standout. Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin was a star for the University of Michigan before signing his entry-level contract with Detroit, and made the NHL roster in his first professional season.

The speedy Michigan-native went on to lead the Red Wings in goal scoring during his rookie year, but like Vesey, there was a sharp dichotomy between his first and second halves.

Jan 20, 2017; Buffalo, NY, USA; Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin (71) during the third period against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center. Sabres beat the Red Wings 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 20, 2017; Buffalo, NY, USA; Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin (71) during the third period against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center. Sabres beat the Red Wings 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Larkin’s 15 goals and 18 assists before the All Star break were good enough for a .69 points per game pace, but after the All Star game, he only managed 12 more points for the rest of the season—a pace of .38 points per game.

While Larkin’s numbers are much higher than Vesey’s he was also playing mostly on the Red Wings’ first line, with over 3:00 more ice time per game than Vesey has seen so far.

So with recent comparisons, it seems that Vesey’s production going forward is more likely to be impacted by his linemates than it does a wear-and-tear effect.

While Vesey is currently seeing improved roster position, again playing with Nash, there’s one other factor that weighs in heavily on predicting his output over the next 30-some games: shooting the puck.

As Sports Illustrated found in a deep-dive analysis of rookie production, first- and second-half splits didn’t appear to follow much of a trend one way or the other.

Some rookies, like Vesey and Larkin, saw their production fall off, while others, like Hayes, saw spikes. The common thread? Shooting volume and shooting percentage.

Just like players of any other age, rookies follow the same rules of regression to talent levels. When Jimmy Vesey was shooting a billion percent (like about half the Rangers forwards) in October and November, that wasn’t a true indication of his talent level.

He’s now down to 16.7% on the season, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if that falls closer to 12 or 13% by the season’s end.

Vesey simply doesn’t shoot the puck much. His 72 shots in 50 games is low for a scorer, and while there’s an argument to be made regarding shot quality—Vesey scores a lot of his goals from close in front, and has good hands to make that happen—expecting him to continue shooting north of 15% is not a great bet.

Considering Vesey’s underlying numbers and expected linemates going forward (if the Rangers can stay healthy), he should score at a better pace than he showed in December and January, but probably won’t touch his numbers from the first two months of the season.

Don’t be surprised if Vesey ends his rookie outing with somewhere closer to 17 or 18 goals instead of the 20+ he appeared to be on pace for a couple months ago.

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