PLYMOUTH, MICH. – It’s only been one game, but Canada seems to have found a potent combo up front at the World Junior Summer Showcase. Chicago Blackhawks lottery pick Kirby Dach, 2020 draft star Alexis Lafreniere and Detroit Red Wings prospect Joe Veleno combined for six points in Canada’s 4-1 win over Team USA at the World Junior Summer Showcase and proved to be a force during a fast-paced game.
It’s an interesting line and it only came together because the trio had worked so well on the power play together early in the game; originally Los Angeles Kings prospect Akil Thomas had been centering Lafreniere and Veleno.
While Lafreniere will be the talk of the draft this upcoming season and Dach looking like he could push for an NHL job in Chicago straight from the 2019 draft, it’s worth noting how important Veleno will be to this Canadian squad as a returning player from last year’s world junior squad (Lafreniere was there too, albeit in a depth role).
Because Veleno was granted exceptional status to join the Quebec League as a 15-year-old, he is eligible to play in the American League this season despite being only 19. That’s great for the Grand Rapids Griffins, but also for Team Canada, which will get a rare player with experience against men on its roster. So far, it’s been an interesting journey for Veleno, thanks to that exceptional status designation.
“It was a roller coaster,” he said. “It’s not easy coming into that league as a 15-year-old playing against 19- and 20-year-olds. Once I got some years under my belt, I became the older guy and things came natural. Getting that experience helped my confidence.”
Veleno went first overall to the Saint John Sea Dogs in 2015 and had a decent rookie season as an underager while playing with future NHLers such as Thomas Chabot and Mathieu Joseph. His second year was truncated by injury, but he still put up nearly a point per game. In his draft year, he was named captain of the Sea Dogs but was eventually traded to Drummondville as Saint John began a rebuild. Scouts thought he put too much pressure on himself in that last stint with Saint John and that Veleno looked more comfortable with the Voltigeurs, but he still slid to the end of the first round of the NHL draft in the summer of 2018, going 30th overall to the Red Wings, who had already taken Filip Zadina sixth overall.
This past season, Veleno was a monster with 104 points for Drummondville, making him one of the top scorers in the QMJHL. That was one point less than Lafreniere, though the kid is happy to take advice from his older Team Canada liney.
“I’ve talked to him a lot and we’ve tried to help each other as two guys from the Quebec League,” Lafreniere said. “He’s so good and off the ice he’s a real good guy.”
Veleno is more than happy to pass on any of his accrued wisdom to anybody on Team Canada and that’s an asset for the program’s coaching staff.
“You’ve got some young guys and he’s gone through it,” said Dale Hunter. “He can relate to the anxiety; it’s tough. Your stomach has butterflies and the first-time guys are trying to impress. Him talking to the young guys helps a lot.”
For Veleno himself, experience will be key to taking his game to the next level at his second world juniors. “Once you’re older in this tournament, it becomes a lot easier,” he said.
“Last year was my first and playing against older guys is never easy. Having that experience under my belt makes me feel a lot more confident with and without the puck. It just makes things come natural.”
With his speed and hands, Veleno will be a key contributor when Canada heads to the Czech Republic, no doubt on a mission to erase last year’s humbling early quarterfinal exit. Given all the ups and downs Veleno has already seen in his young career, it’s fair to say he’ll be prepared for anything. But he wouldn’t trade his exceptional status path, either.
“It made me a lot more mature as a player and a person,” he said. “Looking back on it, I really wanted to be the first one in the QMJHL. I learned a lot from that and it made me a better person.”