Watching the 2018 NHL Entry Draft last Friday night provided some of the more gratifying Red Wings moments in recent memory. At first, I sat in anticipation amidst several Canadiens and Maple Leafs fans as they jostled for position on the couch next to me, awaiting Marc Bergevin’s decision at the podium. Mainly, the Leafs crowd just wanted to rub some salt in the Habs’ wounds (that they did as Filip Zadina went untouched), but I was intrigued about which potential defensive prospect might become an anchor on this team’s blueline one day. We all know how that played out as the Halifax Moosehead forward fell right into Ken Holland’s lap — and I couldn’t have been happier.
What would Holland and the front office do with the 30th overall pick? A selection they acquired at the March trade deadline in the Tomas Tatar deal with the Golden Knights that left Holland looking like somewhat of a genius (I still use this word loosely folks). The logical pick might have been to zero in on that aforementioned defenseman for the long run, but there was just one problem...Joe Veleno still sat on the draft board. Of course, the Wings jumped at this opportunity and why not? The International Scouting Services had Veleno ranked 10th overall in their final Top 31 rankings ahead of June’s draft. This guy slipped through the cracks and trust me Wings fans, this is a gift for the organization.
At 6-1, 192 he is a speedy center with great vision to find his teammates with a crisp pass and will be a welcomed addition to the Wings’ powerplay one day. The best part about Veleno’s game might be his unselfish nature — perhaps the biggest knock on him is that he doesn’t shoot the puck enough — and willingness to go the extra mile for his teammates. The 200-foot model has been a part of this franchise’s identity for decades and that is exactly what Veleno brings to the table. He’s smart with the puck and plays a strong, two-way game that often times can be considered relentless in his pursuit of possession.
In 2015, Veleno made QMJHL history by being the first player to receive a status exemption and enter the league as a 15-year-old — need I remind you that Sidney Crosby never achieved this with the Rimouski Oceanic. At 15, he delivered in his rookie season with 43 points in 62 games. And, the following season (2016-17), he was part of a veteran-laden team in Saint John that won the Memorial Cup — the speedy center finished with three goals and four points in as many games, proving he belonged in a tournament typically dominated by 19 and 20-year-old prospects.
This pick by Wings brass solidifies this team down the middle for many years to come and thinking about the idea of Dylan Larkin, Michael Rasmussen and Veleno in their Top 9 has me giddy. There is no shortage of speed from all three of these players — plus, Athanasiou is a natural center — and I think this gives the Wings so much stability for a long, long time. I was extremely critical of Holland over the past couple of offseasons, but it’s hard to argue with his decision-making in the draft and Veleno’s presence in the organization sure has that “home run” feeling.