For Red Wings prospect Joe Veleno, reunion with Alexis Lafreniere would be 'real nice'
Grand Rapids — They talked about it, joked a bit about it, and agreed it would be a lot of fun if it were to happen.
Red Wings prospect Joe Veleno and likely No. 1 overall draft pick Alexis Lafreniere — who many fans hope will be a Red Wing — were linemates on Canada’s gold medal-winning junior hockey team.
They were being hailed on social media as future teammates on the Red Wings.
“I know there were a couple memes going on in the tournament; he was kind of showing them to me and they were kind of funny,” said Veleno, a broad smile on his face. “Obviously it would be real nice if he would come to Detroit, but we’ll see what happens.”
Lafreniere had 10 points (four goals, six assists) in five games (Lafreniere missed two games with a knee injury), while Veleno had six points (one goal, five assists) in six games (he missed one game for suspension), pacing Canada to the tournament victory.
The two have been linemates for the last two years on the Canadian national team, also dominating at the summer showcase in Plymouth Township last summer, with linemate Kirby Dach (Chicago Blackhawks).
Both Veleno and Lafreniere are Quebec junior league players, which also helped them form a connection.
“We played against each other last year, but I guess it started with the under-18 worlds when we first met each other,” Veleno said. “I started playing with him on the power play, then we played a little bit on the same line and there was some chemistry there.
“We bond well off the ice. On the ice, everything seemed to click. We always seem to find each other on the ice.”
Much can still change in the next several months, leading into June’s NHL Entry Draft, but Lafreniere appears to be the surefire No. 1 pick.
He has the skill set, instincts and size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) to be an impact player fairly quickly in the NHL.
“He’s got everything,” Veleno said. “He’s skilled, can skate, and he’s a big boy who can play physical, too. He’s a good teammate, too, a lot of guys will like him. He’s a good guy to have in the locker room who brings a lot of energy to the team.
“He’s a game-changer. He can take a game in his hands when he wants.”
Veleno was a similar player in juniors, but Veleno can talk to Lafreniere about the adjustment of going into pro hockey.
Playing in his first pro season, Veleno has endured a choppy year with the Griffins. Veleno has 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in 37 games, with a team-worst minus-22 plus-minus rating.
As the season has progressed, Veleno, who is only 20, has looked as if he’s adapting to AHL life.
“It’s been a lot different than what I played last year (in the Quebec junior league); it’s a lot tougher,” Veleno said. “For the most part, the first half was a little more of an adjustment. But the second half, I’ve been creating chances offensively and defensively I’ve improved a lot more with my recognition and knowing where to be.
“That’s been a lot better since I came back (from world juniors), and playing with more confidence. I feel good on the ice.”
What has encouraged and pleased Griffins coach Ben Simon is the way Veleno has learned at the pro level, as this season has progressed.
"Anytime you go from junior to pro, there's an adjustment," Simon said. "One of the things Joe has found is, he has to compete a little bit harder for ice. He has to battle a little harder for pucks. It's not like junior (hockey). He's had to fight for every little inch he gets on the ice and he's kind of figured that out, that you can't take a shift off or you can't rely on your talent.
"You have to consistently work and he's gotten better in all facets. The fact he is learning and growing is encouraging."
Simon believes it's for Veleno's benefit that he was used in all situations for Canada at the world championships, and Veleno did whatever needed in order for the team to be successful.
"Sacrificing for the betterment of the team," Simon said of another lesson Veleno learned. "He was a big part of their success over there and was put in big moments, and it's the same thing we've put him in here, some big moments, and he's made mistakes but he's also had moments where he's thrived
"For me, an encouraging thing with him is he seems to learn from mistakes. You're not seeing them as repetitive. If he makes one, you don't see as prevalent as some of the guys who continue to make the same mistakes."
Whether Veleno gets an opportunity for a brief taste of the NHL with the Red Wings this season remains to be seen. Certainly his play, thus far, in the second half of the season would be closer to warranting such a promotion than his first half.
But Simon feels Veleno will continue to work toward that goal.
"He comes in and wants to get better," Simon said. "He watches the video puts in extra time. He's done a nice job of putting the time in."