It’s hard to not like Joe Veleno.
After nearly leading the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) with an awe-inspiring 104 points last season, it became abundantly clear that he was bound for bigger things. At just 19 years old, he’s inspired both his teammates and coaching staff alike with his impressive work ethic and elite talent level. With nothing left to learn at the junior level, it seems almost inevitable that he will continue to develop by playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate. Videos of his impressive play and work ethic, as well as his stuffed stat sheet, bring a thought-provoking question to light:
Do the Red Wings have room for Veleno?
It’s important to note that he has spent four years playing in juniors due to his exceptional player status within the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), giving him the opportunity to play in the highly competitive junior league since age 15. He has more experience than an average prospect his age, and his elite talent and skill during last year’s Red Wings training camp caught the attention of both the front office and the media. All of these factors, coupled with his unrelenting willpower, beg a bigger question: does he have the skills to crack the Red Wings’ roster?
He’s shown poise, skill, and an unbridled urge to give his all on the ice. But will that be enough to stand out in a huge crowd of players fighting for the same spots?
Veleno is one of six players in CHL history to receive exceptional player status. The only other players to obtain this honor are John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, Sean Day, and future star Shane Wright. Veleno’s two years of extra development have given him a significant advantage over other prospects. While he didn’t initially leap off the page statistically in his first two years, he wasted no time breaking out in the 2017-18 season, putting up 79 points and nearly doubling his previous career-high 43 points. In his draft year, he served as captain of the St. John’s Sea Dogs before being traded to the Drummondville Voltigeurs.
“It’s not easy coming into that league as a 15-year-old playing against 19- and 20-year-olds. Once I got some years under my belt, I became the older guy and things came natural. Getting that experience helped my confidence.”Joe Veleno
Veleno’s talent, combined with his experience in leadership, made him an immediate impact in Drummondville, where he continued to blow his expectations out of the water. During the 2018-19 season, he scored a jaw-dropping 104 points in just 59 games centering Drummondville’s top line — only seven points behind QMJHL scoring leader Peter Abbandonato, who played nine more games than Veleno. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that he would have led the league in scoring had he not suffered a minor injury. His work during the regular season made him an easy selection for the QMJHL’s First All-Star team, where he played alongside fellow Red Wings prospect Charle-Edouard D’Astous.
While his point totals and play style are nothing short of impressive, what do numbers in juniors say about a player’s NHL potential?
In short? It’s hard to tell.
Veleno’s Biggest Challenges
Translating QMJHL production to professional production is a near-impossible feat. It’s hard to tell whether or not a player with elite potential in juniors can keep up with the fast-paced, high-energy play style of the NHL. Players like Michael Rasmussen, who scored 59 points in 47 games in the Western Hockey League (WHL), was only able to score 18 points with the Red Wings last season. While that doesn’t disqualify Rasmussen from a future spot on the roster, it shows the massive difference in production from the junior leagues to the NHL. If Veleno wants to continue his meteoric rise in point production, he’ll need to show he can translate his game before he earns a full-time spot on the Red Wings’ roster.
He’ll also be fighting an uphill battle to secure one of the few open roster spots. He’ll need to outplay prospects like Filip Zadina, Rasmussen, Gustav Lindstrom, Christoffer Ehn, Evgeny Svechnikov, Taro Hirose, Ryan Kuffner, and newcomer Adam Erne if he wants to make it on the roster. While Veleno certainly has elite potential as a player, head coach Jeff Blashill may struggle to find a consistent spot for the speedy center. Limited roster room could potentially stunt his development and do him more harm than good.
Where Will Veleno Play?
Barring an impressive outing at training camp and the preseason, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Veleno call Grand Rapids home for a while. With the Griffins, he will get a chance to see consistent top-six minutes on a team with highly skilled wingers and potential teammates in his future. It’s likely that he’ll get a nine-game call-up with the Red Wings once they’re out of the playoff picture, but it seems more than likely that he will spend the majority of his season in Grand Rapids. As a key piece to the Red Wings’ future, his development as a top-six player will be imperative in the coming years.
Having said that, the NHL is an incredibly unpredictable league. Veleno could easily break out during the preseason and leave Blashill with no choice but to give him a roster spot, forcing his way into the most competitive hockey league in the world. It’s not impossible for him to earn a spot, but the current roster layout leaves the odds stacked against him. He’ll need to spend the rest of this offseason working hard and playing harder. When the time comes, we’ll see what Blashill decides to do.
Where do you think Veleno will play? Will he spend his time in Grand Rapids, or break his way into the Red Wings?