Hockey Canada's "exceptional status" designation has always been associated with great hype, since it takes a pretty special 15-year-old to play major junior. John Tavares, whom the rule is colloquially named after, was the first under the current guidelines, followed by Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid and Sean Day. But all those kids hailed from the Ontario League. This year was Quebec's turn.
Joseph Veleno is a six-foot, 170 pound center who played for the Lac St-Louis Lions last year, the same program that produced Jonathan Drouin, Anthony Duclair and Alex Killorn. Playing as an underager with the Lions, he still finished second in team scoring with 52 points in 41 games and had a great showing at the Canada Games with 10 points in six outings.
So it was a no-brainer that the Saint John Sea Dogs would snap him up with the first selection in the QMJHL draft last weekend – though the Dogs didn't have much time to prepare.
See, because no player in Quebec had ever received the exceptional status designation, no one involved knew that Hockey Canada had a hard deadline of Feb. 15 for applications. Veleno missed it and it all seemed pretty open-and-shut. But his advisors, Kent Hughes and Phil Lecavalier, decided to draft a letter to Hockey Canada, stating his case. On Thursday at 5pm, Saint John found out that Veleno would be eligible. The draft was 10am that Saturday.
Needless to say, the Dogs are excited about their new phenom.
"He's a very high-end skill player," said GM Darrell Young. "He has very elite hockey sense, he has passion and a commitment to the game."
Young also noted that Veleno is advanced for his age when it comes to knowing his body; the youngster is very aware of the sleep and nutritional needs he requires to be a top-level player. There's also a great maturity in the teenager; he knows the high profile he has and he knows the expectations he has for himself.
"Look at Crosby, Tavares, McDavid…it's not just one year that they were under the microscope," Young said. "Joseph takes that all in stride."
The GM also had to laugh when he came across an interview Veleno did with a Philadelphia newspaper when he played a tournament there – as a nine-year-old. So the press has been part of the kid's life for years, it turns out.
Veleno will be coming in to a great situation in Saint John, too. The Sea Dogs were a playoff team this season and only got the No. 1 pick thanks to a previous deal with Drummondville. Saint John had six players at the NHL draft combine on the weekend, including likely first-rounders Jakub Zboril and Thomas Chabot.
The Sea Dogs also picked first overall last season, taking defenseman Luke Green. He had a very successful rookie campaign with 36 points in 60 games, putting him second among blueliners in team scoring to Chabot.
And since all five of Saint John's top scorers were 17-year-olds, the future is looking pretty solid for the squad.
"I'm looking at 2016-17 as our 'go for it' year," Young said. "But we should be pretty good the next season, too."
Amazingly, Veleno's 2000 birthday means he won't be draft eligible for the NHL until 2018. That's a lot of time to enjoy his skills if you're a Sea Dogs fan.