Red Wings think they got draft steal with ‘incredible’ skater Joe Veleno

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Joe Veleno

Detroit – Center Joe Veleno was reliving the moment the other day while taking a break at Little Caesars Arena after a workout.

The recent Detroit Red Wings first-round draft pick, who was drafted much later – No. 30 overall – than Veleno or the team anticipated, was thinking about that day, June 22 in Dallas, when he sat inside  American Airlines Arena, waiting for his name to be called.

“I was really excited about being there in the first place,” said Veleno. “But I was getting nervous.”

Easy to understand why. Veleno was projected to go in the middle of the first round. But as those picks went by, and Veleno found himself still sitting by his family and friends, it became excruciating.

“It gets to you,” Veleno said.

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The way it ended, with the Wings finally selecting Veleno with the next-to-last pick of the night, Veleno feels it worked out as well as could have been expected.

In his short time in the organization, especially last week building friendships at the development camp, Veleno has found the Wings’ organization a perfect landing spot.

But Veleno is definitely going to use what happened at the draft as motivation.

“In my opinion, I felt I could have gone (in the draft) a little bit earlier,” Veleno said. “But everything happens for a reason. I’m not really sure (what happened). It’s the GM’s (general manager) decision to call the name of the player.

“It just motivates me knowing they (other teams) didn’t want me. I don’t know what happened.”

Most scouting services had Veleno ranked in the teens, but there were some red flags that could have given teams pause.

He was good, but not outstanding, at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament last summer, the first big gathering for draft-eligible players. Then, after getting traded from Saint John to Drummondville, Veleno again started slowly before turning his season around.

“It looked like he was trying to live up to the hype at the beginning but then settled in,” one scout told the Hockey News for its NHL draft preview of top prospects. (Veleno was ranked 11th by the Hockey News.)

Joe Veleno: “In my opinion, I felt I could have gone (in the draft) a little bit earlier.”

Red Line Report, considered by many in the industry the Bible of the hockey draft, actually had Veleno ranked 34th among its prospects – just about where he was picked by the Wings.

“Slick and creative puckhandler … traditional playmaking center,” Red Line Report said of Veleno in its analysis on him. “Sees the ice extremely well and gets the puck to his linemates in good scoring position. Able to make delicate touch passes off both sides of the blade. Reads and anticipates developing plays and gets to the right spots early. Has excellent stop-and-go ability to shake loose from defenders and get out of scrums with the puck.”

But Red Line wasn’t impressed by Veleno’s shot.

“Has a very poor shot and will not score on NHL netminders. Tends to telegraph his shot and needs to improve both the power and his release. Plays a mature, advanced two-way game and is responsible in his defensive assignments. Great character kid with strong leadership skills. Highly coachable and will fill whatever role is asked of him.

“Victim of overly high expectations as the QMJHL's first ‘exceptional status’ player. Ceiling may not be as high as once thought, but low bust potential.”

Veleno also had to carry the reputation of being the first 15-year-old to ever be granted “exceptional status” in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the right to play in the junior league as an underage player.

Though he had a fine career, Veleno didn’t overwhelm the competition like a John Tavares or Connor McDavid did when they entered as exceptional players at age 15 in the Ontario League.

Tyler Wright, the Wings’ amateur scouting director, couldn’t believe Veleno was there for the taking when the Wings were picking 30th.

“We had him extremely high on the board,” Wright said. “We wanted to target centers, as well. He’s captain of Team Canada at Ivan Hlinka, he’s captain of the under-18 world championship team. Special exemption in the Quebec Major Junior League as a 15-year-old.

“If you’d have told me we were walking out with Veleno at 30, I would have been shocked.

“I don’t want to do a lot of comparisons by he skated a lot like Dylan Larkin.”

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That’s what Shawn Horcoff, the Wings’ director of player development, also saw during last week’s development camp.

“Incredible,” was Horcoff’s word to describe Veleno’s skating. “He has a good skill set, too. He’s just a guy you can see out there. Can he become that kind of penalty killer with skill, a guy hard to play against and chip in with offense?

“There’s a lot of areas in the game he could influence.”

Veleno admits there were difficult times as a 15-year-old trying to break into the Quebec League.

“It was (tough),” Veleno said. “There were ups and down. It wasn’t easy, at first, getting used to the pace and strength of the guys. I fell into a great organization in Saint John, and the veterans really helped me, the staff helped me.

“It became easier the following year. (But as a 15-year-old) I don’t think I really matured. I didn’t start shaving yet. In the playoffs, I couldn’t grow any (facial hair).”

Veleno, now 18, will return to Drummondville this season, and likely begin his pro career next year. The fact that it will be with the Red Wings makes him happy. Though the sting of falling like he did to the Wings, that still will keep him hungry.

“Looking at it, maybe it was a good thing,” Veleno said. ”Detroit is a great team, in a rebuilding mode. I’m excited to be part of it.”