0Joe Veleno
Photo Credit: Jenae Anderson - Access Hockey MI

Grand Rapids recap: Joe Veleno’s first go at the pros was a consistent year of progress

It’s been two full months since the NHL and sports world as a whole came to an abrupt standstill. The old normal for professional sports — regular salary structure or in-arena spectators for example — may take years to reestablish. But that hasn’t stopped the NHL or NBA from trying to salvage possible lost seasons with some form of a return to play this Summer.

The NHL as of now is still far from a solution. Tasked with formulating a plan that will please as many as possible (or, really, piss as few people/teams off) has kept discussions in limbo. The major push-back on the proposed draft lottery changes was a pretty good representation of the progress the league has made. And in a double backfire move, the stalled talks are eating away at crucial time if a June draft/Summer hockey is actually the goal.

Of course, making decisions of this magnitude has many implications, and is a position I don’t envy. So while the league takes their time on a Return to Play Plan, the logistics of a resumed season have to be addressed in the meantime. That started on Monday when the AHL officially cancelled their season. Not surprisingly at all to see, as the financial optics were much more daunting for the AHL. Resuming play without game day revenue would not have been viable.

For the Griffins and their players, missing out on playoff hockey, or even the pressure of a playoff push, is a huge disappointment. In the thick of it all with several other Central Division foes, the Griffins had a clear path to the postseason. Developmentally speaking, top prospects like Joe Veleno and Moritz Seider missed out on experiencing that kind of atmosphere. Veleno even more so, seeing as Seider was at least apart of Mannheim’s championship run in the German pro league the season prior.

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Looking back over Grand Rapids up-and-down season, Veleno’s contributions as a rookie sticks out. Despite missing out on the postseason, Veleno showed he is very much on the trajectory of being a quality NHL pivot. That may come as a surprise because at first glance his numbers were nothing spectacular, especially for a former first round pick. 11 goals and 23 points in 54 games only placed him T-37th in AHL rookie scoring. But simple counting stats don’t do Veleno’s development justice.

The main takeaway I had all season was how he continuously improved. The Veleno that started the season in October was not the same one that ended in March. As he adjusted to the pace and higher skill-level of the AHL, more and more his confidence grew. Now, he’s holding onto the puck longer, searching out open ice and even making plays with pure speed.

Veleno’s consistent progress made throughout the year is promising for the 2020-21 season. Largely because Veleno showed this kind of development in the AHL a year before most his age even make the jump from junior. He was able to debut in the AHL as a 19-year-old because he started in the QMJHL a year early due to having exceptional status. In a general sense, he was just getting his feet wet.

Being out for several months due to the early season cancellation may hurt his chances of starting out in the NHL next season, but no doubt he has put himself in that conversation.

How he fits into long-term plans is up for debate. The knock on Veleno out of the draft was he lacked a stand-out ability and may be destined as a bottom-6 center. While that may be an extreme projection, anyone holding out for a Dylan Larkin-lite sort of player will be disappointed. I do think, however, that Veleno’s positive development over the last two years invokes more confidence that he’ll be able to overcome these criticisms, or even prove that they were overblown to begin with.

So, realistically, the Red Wings have an all-around center option to plug in down the road. Playing a position the team desperately needs, Veleno can be a valuable piece to play behind Larkin. Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Filip Zadina already make up the foundation on the wing, but could another flank complete that group? Prized 2020 draft prospect Alexis Lafreniere would certainly do that.

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“He’s a game-changer. He’s a really talented player who has a lot of skill. He can take control of the game whenever he wants. It was fun to play with him and see him on the ice.” Veleno told Wingsnation’s Tom Mitsos following the World Juniors, where he and Lafreniere lead Canada to a gold medal.

Of course, with the draft lottery format still a mystery, landing the No. 1 pick remains a pipe dream, but pairing the two gold medalists in Detroit still remains an enticing thought.