Veleno, year one: exceptional, once you look at it

·Mike Sanderson
Saint John's Joe Veleno has looked impressive in his own right as the QMJHL's youngest player this season. (QMJHL Images)
Saint John's Joe Veleno has looked impressive in his own right as the QMJHL's youngest player this season. (QMJHL Images)

This season, Saint John Sea Dogs forward Joe Veleno did what no other QMJHL player has ever done before – play a season in the QMJHL as an exceptional status player.

After a very late and controversial call to make Veleno the first non-OHL exception pick from Hockey Canada, fans were waiting for a strong season from the league’s first overall pick.

They did get a strong rookie season from Veleno, but a combination of strong linemates and strong team meant that he didn’t get to show off as much exceptional talent as he might have otherwise, with a strong and deep Saint John team preventing him from having to step into a big role right away.

In fact, you could be forgiven if the first thing you think of in regards to Veleno is a play in December in Halifax, where he was hit by Kelly Bent and then tangled in a scrum with the overager, while Sea Dogs forward Boko Imama came off the player’s bench to step in on the Mooseheads’ enforcer, throwing punches at Bent over a linesman and earning Bent a five-game suspension and Imama a 15-gamer.

Beneath his middling stat line on a strong team, Veleno has been impressing scouts with his polished talent and his maturity beyond his years.

“I think that’s the big key for him,” Sea Dogs head coach Danny Flynn told Canoe.ca’s Don Brennan. “He’s quiet, he’s unassuming, he does all the rookie tasks here. He loves the game. When you factor in he’s going to have three years in this league before his draft, he has a chance to be a real good player.

“I remember going to camp, and we had good nucleus of forwards back, and saying ‘geez, he’s 15, I hope he can hold his own.’ It took me about 10 minutes of the first scrimmage to say this guy is going to be just fine.”

Veleno fifth player granted exceptional status

Veleno was the first QMJHL player to be granted exceptional status, and the fifth player overall.

The four OHL players given the exception – John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid and Sean Day – all had 15-year-old seasons that ranged from merely good to amazing, with Tavares leading the pack.

Tavares’s 2005-06 with the Oshawa Generals saw him put up well over a point a game with 77 points in 65 games, which put him second in scoring on the Gens behind then 19-year-old Peter Tsimikalis. Tavares outpaced older future NHLers Cal Clutterbuck, Brett MacLean and Adam Berti.

He was eventually the first overall pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, and is now the New York Islanders captain and NHL superstar.

Ekblad was the next exceptional status player, picked by the Barrie Colts first overall in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection, and he had a pretty good season as a 15-year-old in 2011-12. He was his team’s highest scoring defenceman, playing in all situations and gaining responsibilities, though he finished eighth in team scoring. He added five points in 13 games in the playoffs that season.

Ekblad was the first overall pick of the Florida Panthers in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year last year, while putting up similar numbers and gaining an even bigger role this season on the Panther blueline.

McDavid made it two in a row for exceptional talents in the OHL, after his midget performance of 209 points in 88 games with the Toronto Marlboros couldn’t be denied. He went first overall in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection, and put up 66 points in his first season, wowing fans with his puck control, poise and vision.

He’s doing just that in his first season in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers, where he’s put up over a point a game, looking very much like a generational talent in his first season in the world’s top league.

Day made it three-for-three, but his inclusion led to many debates on the exceptional status process. He wasn’t a surefire first overall pick like Tavares, Ekblad or McDavid before him, and his midget numbers weren’t impressive, but his 6’2”, 220 pound frame and his natural tools were.

Day was taken fourth overall by the Mississauga Steelheads, taken after Travis Konecny, Dylan Strome and Matthew Spencer, and he’s a player who scouts have trouble placing where he’ll be picked in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.

Where does Veleno stack up?

So if you count the picks, three hits and a miss is a 75% clip – with Day still on the course, so to speak – which isn’t awful. It is so hard to judge players at 15-years-old for future projection, but the intention is that exceptional players are just that: exceptional. So how does Veleno stack up?

He was taken first overall in his draft year, as a no-brainer pick from Darrell Young and the Saint John Sea Dogs.

To his benefit, he was picked to a team that already had seven NHL picks, so he was joining a team that was overwhelmingly better than the team’s the other four players were saddled with.

That makes comparing these players hard, as Veleno didn’t get the ice time the other four got since he didn’t need to. Tavares, Ekblad, McDavid and Day played as much as they did because they joined teams with next-to-no depth.

The Sea Dogs have Sam Povorozniouk, Mathieu Joseph, Matthew Highmore, Nathan Noel, Adam Marsh, Spencer Smallman, Daniel Del Paggio and Imama among the top 9 forwards that Veleno can slot in with, and has played with just about all of those players as a third line fixture with a full lineup in place.

As a result? Veleno had 43 points in 62 games, less than the other two forwards in Tavares and McDavid, but Veleno’s game is not entirely offensive. He’s a two-way forward, and was drafted as such. He’s shown flashes of a strong two-way game, strong on the back-check, but his vision and his passing are his two greatest skills in year one. His 30 assists look better by comparison to Tavares’s 32 or McDavid’s 41. He finished eighth in scoring on the Sea Dogs, just behind Ottawa Senators’ first rounder Thomas Chabot.

Veleno says his favourite player growing up was Alex Ovechkin, but he soon turned to a two-way Chicago Blackhawk center to model his game.

“Once I started to understand the game more, I started watching Jonathan Toews, being a two-way centre, and I kind of took a few things from him,” Veleno told Don Brennan.

“I like to change the game around, create offence, make plays. I’m still working on my defensive zone but I think it’s coming along good.”

Veleno slotted tenth in rookie scoring in the regular season; third if you count 16-year-olds and under. He was 17 points behind Victoriaville’s Maxime Comtois, who went third overall in last year’s QMJHL draft, and seven points behind Acadie-Bathurst’s Antoine Morand, who went second overall.

All in all, not quite up to the levels of Tavares or Ekblad, but the future is very bright for the Kirkland, Qc., native.

What’s his future hold?

The three forwards on the exceptional status list are different styles of players.

Comparatively, Tavares and McDavid are not the strongest defensive players in the NHL and were not the strongest in the OHL, either. Veleno has shown he has a full tool box – skating, passing, shooting, stick handling – on offense, while also holding his own defensively with a good active stick in his own zone, in good position most of the time, and great gap control on the back check.

He has had certain moments or plays this season that make you forget he’s only a rookie, and a 15-year-old at that, like a confident stickhandling move through a top defender, a pass through sticks and bodies tape-to-tape, or a strong skate back on the back check to thwart a scoring chance.

In the second half of the year, as he’s gotten more comfortable, he’s used his body more and thrown some more checks, gotten more feisty and challenged opponents more. He should be a fixture on the top penalty killing units as early as next year, and he played the whole year on the powerplay, on the second unit for the Sea Dogs for most of the year, seeing some time on the top unit with injuries.

Prognosticators like TSN’s Craig Button have said that Veleno could slot in the top 3 in his draft year in 2018.

All the top Sea Dogs forwards but Povorozniouk are likely to return next season, barring NHL decisions on Chabot and Jakub Zboril, and AHL decisions on Imama and Smallman, so even in his second season, Veleno can be brought along slowly in a sheltered situation as needed.

Tavares jumped to his best junior season at 16, potting 72 goals and 134 points for the Gens, while McDavid narrowly missed the 100 point mark, finishing at 99 in 2013-14 for the Otters. Both players were in the conversation for Team Canada at their respective World Junior Championships, with McDavid making the team at 16 in 2014. Barring a major step forward, Veleno is unlikely to make enough noise to get an invite to the under-20 summer camp, let alone a shot at the team in December.

There is only one puck to go around for the Sea Dogs, so a 100-point season may be a pipe-dream for Veleno, but a strong step forward with two-way play wouldn’t be unexpected, along with a point a game production.

He could supplant a couple wingers ahead of him on the depth chart, and he may see more shifts at center at 16. He is used almost exclusively as a winger in 2015-16, as the Sea Dogs already have Joseph, Highmore and Noel at center.

That being said, the Sea Dogs are still playing in 2015-16, holding a 3-games-to-1 series lead in their first round playoff series against the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. They could make a long run this season, and build for next season as well. Veleno could prove to be a factor in the run; he has a goal in four games so far.

It may take a year or two for casual fans to really notice something exceptional or generational in Veleno, though the Saint John Sea Dogs already know.

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