Joe Veleno: Prospect Profile

Joe Veleno Malmo Redhawks
By Jeff Watters

December 10, 2021

Joe Veleno is the top centre prospect in the Red Wings’ system. Drafted 30th overall in 2018, Veleno is now playing for his third team in three seasons. Has he lived up to his first-round billing? Today, we take a closer look at Pipeline’s #3 ranked prospect.

Joe Veleno was slated to go in the 12-15 range in the 1st round of the 2018 draft. 

He didn’t.

As teams approached the podium to make their selections, Veleno’s name remained atop the list of “best available” players. It stayed there until former scouting director, Tyler Wright, stepped to the mic and confidently announced Veleno’s name with the 30th overall pick.

Why did he slip? Some believed Veleno was a low risk but low reward kind of prospect. A reliable centre with limited upside. A guy who had a great chance to be an NHLer, but most likely as a bottom-6 forward.

Well, two and a half seasons later the jury is still out on Veleno’s upside. He very clearly has NHL skill, as many predicted. However, the million-dollar question remains: how much offense will he be able to generate in the NHL?

The “Exceptional” Years

At 15, Joe Veleno became the first player in QMJHL history to be granted exceptional status to join the league as a double under-ager. Veleno’s performance and maturity — on and off the ice — played a key role in the decision to allow him to suit up in the Q at such a young age. 

The two preceding years saw Veleno impress with the Bantam AAA (2013-14) and Midget AAA (2014-15) Lac St-Louis Lions. As a 13-year-old Veleno led the Bantam squad in scoring with 18 goals and 36 points in 27 games. The following season Veleno was second in team scoring with 16 goals and 52 points in 41 games with the Midget team.

Was Veleno expected to be the next Connor McDavid or John Tavares — two others who were granted exceptional status (in the OHL)? Of course not. Due to circumstance, however, he wasn’t being challenged at lower levels and fit the criteria to be permitted to enter the QMJHL draft. There, he was selected 1st overall by the Saint John Sea Dogs.

Veleno, mature beyond his years, was well aware of the perceived “pressure” that came with his unique status. This didn’t seem to phase him, however, as he had a very solid rookie season with the Sea Dogs. His 13 goals and 43 points in 62 games on a very talented Saint John’s team don’t jump off the page at you, but keep in mind he was not a regular on the power play and played bottom 6 minutes for much of the season. The main takeaway from Veleno’s rookie season was that he didn’t look out of place and capitalized on his opportunities.

Veleno had an uptick in production in his sophomore season. He had 13 goals and 40 points in an injury-shortened second year with the Sea Dogs. Veleno played just 45 games in 2016-17 as he was sidelined with a lower-body injury early in the season. His strong finish to the campaign helped the Sea Dogs capture the QMJHL’s President’s Cup and advance to the Memorial Cup.

While Veleno never put up elite numbers as an under-ager, his complete 200-foot game was always apparent. Veleno’s hockey IQ was unmatched by his teammates and his decision-making with the puck had been exceptional. His skating, perhaps his best attribute, allowed him to step in and play with older competition from day 1. He was a very enticing prospect and had another year to solidify himself as a 1st round pick in the 2018 draft.

The Draft Year

Veleno’s draft year began with a trip to the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Veleno captained a gold medal-winning Team Canada. He led the Canadians with 2 goals and 7 points in 5 games, kicking off what was to be the most important year of his junior career. 

The Red Wings know all about rebuilding. For Joe Veleno, his Saint John Sea Dogs were entering a rebuild of their own in 2017-18. With a number of graduations, Veleno, now the captain, was one of few point producers remaining with the team. 

Talk about pressure. Not only was Veleno hoping to impress scouts, but he was also to lead a team that ultimately ended the season with not a single point-per-game-player (that’s saying something in the QMJHL).

During his time with the Sea Dogs that year, Veleno was a point-per-game player. Veleno had 6 goals and 31 points before he was shipped off to the Drummondville Voltigeurs in early December 2017. 

With a stronger supporting cast, Veleno broke out. In 33 games with Drummondville, Veleno had 16 goals and 48 points — his most impressive stretch to date in the Q. He then added 8 goals and 17 points in 16 playoff games for the Voltigeurs. 

Not a bad way to wrap up your draft year. 

Joe Veleno makes a pass for Drummondville Voltigeurs
Veleno really took off after being traded to Drummondville. | Photo: Ghyslain Bergeron

Veleno’s strong play down the stretch showed teams what he could do when surrounded by talent. He wasn’t going to be a player who took the game into his own hands and willed his team to a win. That’s just not the type of player he was — or is today. Veleno was a 2-way forward. He was also a playmaker who needed to be paired with teammates who could find open ice and put the puck in the net.

Fortunately for the Red Wings, Veleno’s lack of production with the Sea Dogs early in the year likely scared some teams off. Were those teams justified in passing on Veleno? If you believe in what Veleno showed the following year, the answer is probably no.

From Drummondville to Grand Rapids

Veleno finished his junior career in style. He followed up the hot finish to his draft year with 42 goals and 104 points in 59 games for the Voltigeurs in his draft-plus-1 season. He was 4th in the league in scoring and led the league in points-per-game.

Although it’s never wise to read too much into junior stats — especially in the QMJHL — it was great to see Veleno follow up his draft year with such a dominant performance. You can bet he was playing with a chip on his shoulder after falling to 30th in the 2018 draft.

Veleno made his pro debut for the Grand Rapids Griffins on Nov. 5, 2019. Thanks to his aforementioned exceptional status Veleno was permitted to play in the AHL as a 19-year-old. As many players do, Veleno had his struggles in his first season in the AHL. He was visibility lost and “in-between” at times as he had a difficult time adjusting to a new system. The challenge for Veleno was playing that 200-foot game at a professional level; sticking to his defensive assignments while still generating offense. 

Joe Veleno Grand Rapids Griffins
It took Veleno a few months to adapt to life in the AHL. |

After a rough start to his season, Veleno departed for the Czech Republic to represent an absolutely stacked Team Canada at the 2020 World Juniors. He was instrumental in the Canadians winning gold. Veleno played in all situations for Canada and had 6 points in 6 games (though he could’ve easily had 10 or 11 points given his opportunities). 

Upon returning to Grand Rapids, Veleno was a different player. Although the offensive numbers hadn’t come along, he was clearly more comfortable and confident after a strong World Juniors performance. As the year progressed, Veleno was challenged and given high-leverage minutes — and he responded. Whether it was protecting leads late in games or creating offense when called upon, Veleno took his game to the next level. 

Unfortunately, as we all know, the season was called early and Veleno didn’t have the opportunity to battle for a playoff spot with the Griffins. Regardless, the progress was real and Veleno was heading into 2020-21 on a high note.

On Loan in the SHL

Veleno, along with a number of Red Wing prospects, has been playing in the SHL this season. Playing in his third league in three years, Veleno has gotten off to a solid start with the Malmö Redhawks. Malmö has been one of the worst teams in the SHL this season, but Veleno has managed to score 4 goals and add 4 helpers in 15 games.

The bigger European ice surface has surely been an adjustment, and playing with a weaker team makes it that much more difficult to use the extra space to your advantage. Veleno’s Corsi For % of 48.5% shows that he has been on the ice for roughly the same number of shot attempts for as he has shots attempts against. 

Playing in the SHL can only do positive things for Veleno’s development, however. Given the opportunity to play competitive hockey early in 2020-21 has been huge for Veleno and the Red Wings. He’s been able to continue to work on his 200-foot game and work towards being a heavily relied upon player who can play in all scenarios for Detroit.

What Will Joe Veleno Ultimately Become?

I ranked Joe Veleno as the Red Wings’ #3 prospect for the 2020-21 season. While some have written off his potential as a 2nd line centre, I’m still a believer. Is that what he is today? Of course not. I do, however, think he can be that player eventually. 

That may mean being eased into the NHL in a sheltered role in the bottom 6 and slowly working his way up to the second line. 

It may also mean an extra year in Grand Rapids to sharpen some aspects of his game so he can become that complete 200-foot player at the NHL level.

When you look at what Veleno brings to the table — his speed, hockey IQ, playmaking, 2-way game, intensity — the tools are there. It’s now just a matter of putting it all together. 

I also see Veleno as a guy who could wear a letter one day in Detroit. He’s been a captain in the QMJHL and for Team Canada and been praised for his maturity and leadership abilities.

One thing I would like to see Veleno do at the professional level is shoot the puck more often. He has a great release — and this is probably one of the more underappreciated aspects of his game. He is an excellent playmaker, but sometimes Veleno defers to teammates instead of letting that strong wrister go. This will be something the Red Wings development staff will certainly be in his ear about. I mean, this is an NHL release:

Even if Veleno does settle in as a 3rd line centre, it wouldn’t be the worst outcome in the world — especially if it means the Red Wings have one of Dylan Larkin or another 1st line centre slotted in on the 2nd line. If Veleno can be a high-end third-line centre that sure would deepen the Red Wings’ future lineup.

Final Thoughts

Joe Veleno may not have the highest offensive ceiling, but I believe his complete game will make him a very valuable Red Wing. There may be some other forwards in the organization with more pure offensive skill than Veleno, but let’s not sell him short. Veleno is very skilled and should be able to produce 50 points annually in the NHL.

The Red Wings are not going to call him up to be the go-to guy. He won’t be the final piece that will turn them back into a contender. Veleno isn’t going to be a superstar — and that’s ok. When Veleno arrives he will be surrounded by talent and we’ve seen what he can do when put in a situation to succeed. 

Not every player follows the same trajectory to the NHL, so it’s important not to read too much into the stat line for young players like Veleno. Take Anthony Mantha, for example. As a 20-year-old, he barely outproduced a 19-year-old Veleno in Grand Rapids during his rookie season (about 0.1 points-per-game more than Veleno). Meanwhile, Dylan Larkin had 45 points in 80 NHL games as a 19-year-old. I think we can safely say those numbers don’t indicate how Mantha and Larkin compare offensively today. 

It may take Veleno a little bit longer to reach his NHL potential and I’m sure that’s fine with Stevie Y. and the Red Wings. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a call-up sometime in 2021-22, but this will largely depend on Veleno’s performance next year back in Grand Rapids.

Veleno is a very good prospect and will be an excellent addition to the Red Wings lineup. He’s another Wings’ prospect with smarts, skill, and a motor that just won’t quit. I believe that when Joe Veleno establishes himself in the NHL he’s going to make a lot of GMs regret passing on him with their first pick — and that’s outstanding value for the Red Wings.

Featured Image: Christoffer Borg Mattisson/Bildbyrån

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