It says something about the expectations Joe Veleno brought with him to junior hockey that his projection this month as a mid-first-round National Hockey League draft pick actually seems like under-achievement for the Drummondville Voltigeurs’ playmaking centre.
Three years ago, the Montrealer became the first player granted “exceptional status” in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which allowed him to play as a 15-year-old. For context, consider that the first three players granted this status in the Canadian Hockey League were John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid – who all went on to become first-overall NHL draft picks out of the Ontario League.
Veleno is good, but isn’t near their calibre. He appeared to be headed towards the bottom of the first round – NHL Central Scouting ranked him 13th among North American skaters in mid-season – until a trade last December sent him to Drummondville from Saint John.
After 31 points in 31 games to start the season, which represented an offensive plateau for Veleno in his draft year, he exploded for 48 points in 33 games for Drummondville to climb back to No. 8 in Central Scouting’s year-end rankings.
In a diary he kept for NHL.com, Veleno wrote: “I wasn’t worried about my production in Saint John. I knew the points would come. No matter what happened, I kept on working hard and didn’t get frustrated; I stayed positive. Certainly, playing in Drummondville and playing with really good players in a good system with good coaches, that helped me a lot.”
Veleno is a good skater, excellent playmaker and dynamite on the power play. He also has been impressive as a Team Canada regular and is one of the top centres available in a draft that tilts at the top towards wingers and defencemen. But his modest offensive improvement in junior since he scored 43 points in 62 games as a 15/16-year-old rookie in Saint John is a little disconcerting. Is his peak, relative to other Y2K-born players, already behind him?
So… how about that Joe Veleno shift on Wednesday night?
Watch it again ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/8GpoBNeTS7
— Saint John Sea Dogs (@SJSeaDogs) October 5, 2017
Team: Drummondville Voltiguers
From: Kirkland, Que.
Weight: 195 pounds
Drummondville was dumped 4-1 by Victoriaville in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs. Veleno led the Voltigeurs with 11 points in 10 playoff games, but that scoring rate (1.1 pts/game) was a steep drop from his regular season in Drummondville (1.45 PPG). For obvious reasons, most players score less in the playoffs when the worst teams have been eliminated. But in three junior seasons, Veleno’s playoff scoring rate of 0.64 PPG is barely two-thirds of his regular rate of 0.95. To his credit, his playoff goal-scoring rate of 0.42 GPG blows away his regular season 0.28 GPG.
Also, dobberprospects.com reported that 18 of Veleno’s 22 goals this season were from low-danger scoring areas. Those long-range shots won’t go in nearly as often at the NHL level.
THE DEFINING STORY
Good or bad, Veleno’s development as a player will always be framed by his successful lobby for exceptional status when he was 15. Veleno was initially denied exceptional status, but appealed and the CHL and QMJHL, fearing a potential Quebec-born superstar could be lost to the U.S. academy system, reversed its decision.
Saint John made him the first-overall pick in the Quebec League draft.
“Obviously, there are a lot of expectations that come with it,” Veleno said at the time. “I’m just focusing on what I have to do and my expectations. For sure, there’s a lot of pride and expectations getting the exceptional status and being the first one in the (QMJHL).
“Tavares, McDavid … they’re incredible players. They’re exceptional. They’re in another class right now. I’m still working. I’m not there. I have a lot of work to do.”
NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said: “You’re on the pedestal. You’re in the limelight. You’re in the spotlight. Every game you’re expected to put on a show. In the scouting fraternity, you don’t go into games with those expectations. Just because you’re good at 15 doesn’t mean you’re going to be good or great at 18. We’ll just see how it plays out.”
Veleno is good. We’re just not sure he’s going to be great in the NHL.
Former Drummondville coach Dominique Ducharme: “We know the potential he’s got and all the skills. Offensively, we see his points are rising, the number of goals. But also he wants to be the best player he can on the ice and in every situation.”
Veleno, who grew up on Montreal’s West Island, once told the Montreal Gazette that he idolized Alex Ovechkin for his scoring.
But he told Sportsnet: “Once I started to realize I had a unique strength in hockey, that I was really good for my age, I focussed my eyes on Jonathan Toews. I saw he was a 200-foot player. He’s a really strong forward and, you know, played in the Olympics, world juniors and all that stuff. Like every kid, you want to be a complete player like that.”