Next man up is a way of life in pro sports. When a player goes down with an injury, it provides an opportunity for somebody else to step in and showcase their skills. Recently, Detroit Red Wings captain and top-line center Dylan Larkin was lost for the rest of the season after undergoing muscle core surgery (from ‘Red Wing captain Dylan Larkin to miss final six games after core muscle surgery,’ Detroit News, April 18, 2022). With just a few games remaining in the 2021-22 season, Joe Veleno has been inserted into Larkin’s spot on the top line with Lucas Raymond and Tyler Bertuzzi, which should provide a valuable learning experience for the 22-year-old center.
The Impact of Larkin’s Absence from the Lineup
Larkin, 25, has thrived in his first full season as team captain on and off the ice posting 31 goals and 38 assists in 71 games this season. The Red Wings simply don’t have the options at the center position on their current roster to make up for his missing point production. With just a week left in the season and clearly out of playoff contention, this injury provides a valuable opportunity for Veleno who has been getting first-line minutes in Larkin’s absence.
Two other centers on the current roster will also see expanded roles in the final week of the season. Pius Suter has had a solid first season with Detroit recording 14 goals and 21 assists in a second-line role and has benefited from the return of Jakub Vrana. Vrana recently scored his 20th goal in his 32nd game which ties the record held by former Red Wing forward Danny Gare.
Third-year center Michael Rasmussen has been playing a steady role on the third line and has produced 13 goals and 11 assists in his first full season with the club. While he does have good size at 6-foot-6 and is gaining confidence in his puck possession and playmaking game at the NHL level, his minus-27 rating doesn’t give the coaching staff confidence to insert him in a top-line role against the league’s best.
Rising Through the Red Wings System
Veleno has played 68 career games with the Red Wings producing eight goals and seven assists with a minus-13 rating. One of his goals came during a five-game stint in 2020-21. He also has a career 48.7 faceoff percentage. Veleno was selected by the Red Wings with the 30th overall pick in the 2018 Draft out of Drummondville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
Many draft experts had him projected as a top-15 pick that year but he slipped to the end of the first round due to concerns about his offensive potential. He responded to those criticisms in 2018-19 finishing with 42 goals and 62 assists in 59 games for the Voltigeurs. Veleno spent parts of the next two seasons in Grand Rapids and 46 games with Malmo Redhawks of the Swedish Premier League before getting a regular role with Detroit this season.
Good Test Against Three of the League’s Best
The insertion of Veleno onto the top line just happened to come during a tough stretch of the schedule when the Red Wings faced three of the league’s best centers. Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning), Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers), and Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) provided a nice test of what it was like to face top competition on a nightly basis. Here is a look at how he fared in those matchups.
Tuesday, April 19: Red Wings 4 – Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Veleno skated 17:04 minutes with no points but did produce three shots on goal and finished with a very responsible plus-1 rating in a surprising victory versus the Lightning. He didn’t see much time on the power play with just 1:26 which was the lowest amount among the top-nine forwards. He saw zero time on the penalty kill and finished with a faceoff percentage of 47 percent.
Thursday, April 21: Florida Panthers 5 – Detroit Red Wings 2
In the second part of a two-game Florida road trip, Veleno skated 19:36 minutes without a point. He fired one shot on goal with three hits and finished with a minus-2 rating. He did see 2:06 minutes of power-play time even though the Red Wings only had two opportunities with the man advantage. He also struggled in the faceoff circle winning just 33 percent of his draws.
Saturday, April 23: Pittsburgh Penguins 7 – Detroit Red Wings 2
Veleno was second among forwards in ice time skating 18:10 to his linemate Bertuzzi who skated 20:27. He still saw zero time on the penalty-killing units and managed just 56 seconds of power-play time, largely because Detroit only had the man advantage twice in the entire game. Once again, he was held off the score sheet and finished with a minus-2 rating and three shots on goal.
A brief analysis of the three games showed Veleno does have the awareness to be a responsible defensive center but seemed content to play a safe game, quickly moving the puck and letting others drive the offense while he focused on his positioning. He will likely get stronger in the offseason and with experience could become a more confident puck carrier and playmaker at the NHL level.
Veleno Has an Opportunity to be a Key Part of the Rebuild
Red Wings have some key decisions to make as they approach year three in Steve Yzerman’s rebuild of the roster. For years Detroit had a philosophy to let their prospects play in Europe, Grand Rapids, or elsewhere until they were “over-ripe” due to a loaded roster that produced 25 consecutive playoff appearances and four Stanley Cup championships that came to an end in 2016-17. The current state of the franchise and the lack of center options on the current roster have provided Veleno with a fast rise through the system. Now it’s up to him to take the experience gained this season and in particular, these last few games into next season to prove he can develop into a key member of the roster moving forward.
Rob Klein grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan playing pond hockey every winter, and watching Hockey Night in Canada on CBC every Saturday. Being able to finally watch his Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup in 1997 was his finest NHL moment. As a fan of the NHL for over 40 years he has been able to follow many great teams and appreciate the history of this great game as well as the remarkable talent that is playing today.