The past decade has seen five players in the Canadian hockey system granted Exceptional Player status, meaning that this would allow them to be eligible for the draft at the age of 14, rather than 15. We have seen this happen with John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, and with Sean Day (undeservedly so). The player I am going to be discussing today is the fifth such player to be granted exceptional status: Joe Veleno of the Saint John Sea Dogs. Veleno was granted this status after putting up a historically good performance in the Québec AAA system, becoming 2nd all-time in single-season points and points per game for a U15 player in his 2014-2015 campaign with the Lac St-Louis Lions. To me, Veleno represents the beginning of an incoming wave of high-end talent that will be coming out of Québec over the next few seasons. This season we will have Veleno. Next season we will see the possibility of two Québec-born prospects crack the top 10 in the 2019 draft: Samuel Poulin and Xavier Parent. The 2019-2020 season will feature a kid whose U16 season in the Québec AAA system saw him become the highest scoring player to come out of that system in over 25 years (5th all-time on this list; note some of the names of the 4 players above him), and an early frontrunner for the 2020 first overall pick, Alexis Lafrenière, who I would argue deserved exceptional status, and could become the best player drafted out of the QMJHL since Sidney Crosby if his developmental trajectory continues at the pace it has been going at. But, I digress.
While there have been some people who have questioned whether Veleno deserved being granted exceptional status, I think it’s incredibly myopic to ever compare his case with Sean Day, as this article does. The purpose of this article is not to argue whether Veleno is worthy or unworthy of being considered for exceptional status. While I personally don’t think he’ll ever reach quite the same heights as Tavares or McDavid, one thing is for certain: this kid can seriously play, and it would take a miracle for him to fall outside of the top 10 this season. Anybody who says otherwise hasn’t taken the time to observe him, or appreciate the different elements of his game with any attention to detail. So without further ado, let’s delve deep into what kind of player he is, and what he can bring to any NHL franchise that drafts him next June.
Name: Joe Veleno
Date of Birth: January 13, 2000
Birthplace: Kirkland, Québec
Current Team: Saint John Sea Dogs
Weight: 194 lbs
NHL comparable: Jonathan Toews
Future Considerations: 4
If I were to summarize Joe Veleno’s game in one very short description, it’s that it’s extremely fine-tuned. The first tape that I came across featuring him was of him as a 15-year-old, playing against other players that were mostly older than him. Even two years removed from the draft, you could tell he is a catalyst every time he steps on the ice. Very shifty and deceptive, his skating technique has so much grace and finesse to it. He has an explosive first step that lets him go from 0-60 very quickly, and a very powerful stride. He has very strong balance on his skates, making him difficult to knock off of the puck, and his edges are as good as anybody’s in the draft. You combine all of these skating feats together, and he’s a very slippery player to deal with.
His hockey IQ, vision, and creativity with the puck are all in the top echelon of this talent pool. Watching him, you’d almost get the impression that he has little brains in his hands and feet by the way he seems to react to what’s going on around him on the ice so fluidly and effortlessly. His puck skills are extremely impressive, and he can stickhandle very proficiently in very tight spaces. He is at his best when he operates in tight spaces. In those circumstances, he can be downright surgical. One of the things I notice about him is that when he carries the puck, he’s very unpredictable. You don’t know what he’s going to do next. In the offensive zone, it will sometimes seem like he plans on attacking in one direction, then he will change speed and direction at the drop of a hat, which often results in a defender’s ankles getting broken in the process, and then buzz laterally to open up time and space for himself and his teammates. Giving him an open passing or shooting lane in the defensive zone is a very bad idea, and it’s difficult to stop him from having that time and space. He can generate offense in so many ways, be it dangling and drawing defenders to himself, and then making a highlight reel feed to a teammate with a gaping open net, or scoring for himself. Veleno is primarily a playmaker, but boasts a decent shooting arsenal. His wrist shot has a very quick, accurate release, although the velocity on it could use a bit of improvement. But it doesn’t really matter much for him, as he does most of his damage within close quarters.
Veleno has excellent positioning. After distributing the puck in the offensive zone, he will immediately reposition himself in a more dangerous position on the ice to accept the puck. He loves to wreak havoc in the offensive zone in front of the net, and is very disruptive on the forecheck, forcing turnovers and creating pandemonium for other teams to deal with. He is an excellent pickpocket, able to sneak up on unaware opponents and snatch the puck away from them, which often results in either a goal or a very dangerous scoring chance as a result. Defenders need to be wary when he’s on the ice, and make sure that they’re protecting the puck, as he is very crafty, and will make them pay dearly if they’re not careful. He is no slouch in the defensive zone either, harassing puck carriers throughout the neutral zone and his own zone. He is very strong along the boards and in the corners, more often than not entering a scrum in these areas and emerging with the puck.
Overall, Veleno is an extremely polished, highly intelligent prospect, that has clearly put a lot of time and attention to detail into fine-tuning the different elements of his game. His game is silky smooth, and he has the ability to dominate in all 3 zones on the ice. In the NHL, his ceiling is that of a legitimate #1 two-way center. Very few players in the 2018 draft can claim to boast the smarts and skills that Joe Veleno has.
Video Credit: NHL Prospects - YouTube. Note: This is footage of him in his draft -2 season.
Video Credit: John Moore - YouTube. Interview and footage taken from Joe Veleno’s QMJHL debut back on September 12, 2015.
Video Credit: shayne pasquino - YouTube
Whether you think he’s exceptional or not, what is very clear is that Joe Veleno has all of the tools that one looks for in a top center, and shouldn’t be called too long after Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov’s names are called for a very good reason. Do I think that Joe Veleno will be the next John Tavares or Connor McDavid? No. But do I think that this kid has the skill, smarts, and the tools to become a legitimate #1 center for a team someday? The answer is yes. Given how badly the Wings need a top center, if the Wings were to have a very bad year this year, being in a position to grab Veleno if they missed out on players such as Dahlin or Svechnikov would add a lot of dynamic and high-end skill down the center for the Wings for years to come. Over the course of this season, Joe Veleno is a name that you should be paying a lot of attention to. It will be interesting to see how he will fare this season, and whether he will prove that he has earned that exceptional status once and for all.
Anyways, this concludes all I wanted to cover for Joe Veleno. When I return next, I am going to be discussing yet another top prospect that is going to be taken out of the QMJHL next June, Filip Zadina of the Halifax Mooseheads. Stay tuned!