All this attention is nothing new for Drummondville Voltigeurs centre Joe Veleno.
He first found himself in that situation nearly three years ago when he became the first QMJHL player to be granted exceptional status. The Saint John Sea Dogs broke that ground in 2015 when they drafted him first overall to play as a 15-year-old.
The 6’2”, 194-pound centre has lived with the associated hype ever since and gone on to deliver a league championship for the Sea Dogs and captain Canada to a gold medal at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup. Now in his third full major junior season, the big stage waiting for him at the upcoming Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game hardly fazes him.
“I don’t really think it’s pressure; it’s just a game where you can showcase your skills and you want to go there and play well,” he said. “It’s a chance for the scouts to get an overall look at all the prospects at one time. But for the players, it’s supposed to be a fun experience, so I don’t think you want to go there and press anything. I think you play better when you’re having fun.”
Veleno knows a strong individual showing would boost his draft stock but is wise enough to understand there is a right and wrong way to try to produce a favourable impression with the scouts.
“It’s not the kind of game where you’re there to focus on systems so that gives you (some freedom) to go out and showcase your individual skill. That’s what I’ll try to focus on. I want to try to make good plays, be aggressive and stuff like that,” he said. “But you also don’t want to go there and not play team hockey. Trying to do too much by yourself is never good in any game. The scouts want to see that you know how to play the right way.”
And to be fair to Veleno, his draft stock has suffered, at least in part, from having to carry a rebuilding team in the first half of the 2017-18 season. The Sea Dogs lost several veterans to graduation after winning last year’s QMJHL title, leaving Veleno and a handful of others behind to shoulder a heavy load on a young team.
A scout consulted for this story agreed that Veleno’s status has at least “flat-lined” but the opportunity to play on a better team in the second half of the season will give the Montrealer plenty of time to reverse any downward momentum.
Now with the Voltigeurs, there’s a reasonable likelihood he will see a noticeable spike in his production down the stretch. The Voltigeurs acquired Veleno from Saint John on Dec. 19.
“I was honestly a little shocked,” Veleno said. “Even though I was expecting it, it happened really soon and that was the part that kind of caught me by surprise. I can still remember my first day in Saint John like it was yesterday. I was obviously really excited (too) but a little sad at the same time. I’d been in Saint John for two and a half years and it was like a second home, especially since I went there at such a young age. It was hard to leave. But now I’m really excited to join a young, talented team that has a chance to win this year and next year. It’s a lot of fun to win (the league championship) so hopefully I can relive that here.”
How he reacts to the move is yet another circumstance where the scouts can evaluate him. He has already shown he can score, play polished defence and provide leadership, so now they will watch to see if he has the right kind of personality and awareness to handle an abrupt mid-season change. A thoughtful and mature teen who was captain in Saint John, Veleno should pass the test easily.
“It helps a lot that I’ve been around that extra year,” he said. “This is my third season in the league and I’ve experienced a lot of different situations, so that’s something that helps me. Being a young veteran, I guess you could say, is something I think helps me. I want to be someone who leads and there are older players on our team, but I’ve been through a lot of different things, so I think I can contribute. I think I’m in a good situation here in Drummondville.”
Veleno will also get to play for Dominique Ducharme in Drummondville. Known across Canada for his effective stewardship of Team Canada at the past two World Juniors, Ducharme has a knack for getting players to elevate their game during their draft years. He helped Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Timo Meier and Nikolaj Ehlers become top 10 picks while he was behind the Halifax Mooseheads’ bench.
“He wants me to bring a little bit of everything,” Veleno said. “He doesn’t want me to change much. He wants me to bring my experience, but he also wants me just to keep playing the way I’ve always played. He coached me at the CIBC Canada Russia Series and he told me he watched me there and wants me to play the way I did there. I obviously want to be consistent and keep getting better.”
Written for the CHL by Willy Palov