Jeff Blashill iterated the challenge for Joe Veleno, as with other young players, is to prove he’ll make the Detroit Red Wings “significantly better” to be on the roster when the season begins.
The Wings have one last exhibition game, Saturday at the Buffalo Sabres, before making roster decisions in advance of the Oct. 14 season opener. Veleno, drafted 30th overall in 2018, has two goals and one assist in five games.
“My job is to play a 200-foot game and be responsible at both ends of the ice and chip in offensively,” Veleno said after Thursday’s 4-2 win over Pittsburgh. “I thought I’ve done a pretty good job of it. I used my physicality, which is one thing I wanted to work on this year — come in bigger and stronger and use that to my advantage. I’ve finished hits when I’ve been able to.”
Veleno, 21, has completed two seasons of pro hockey, playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2019-20 (11 goals, 12 assists in 54 games) and spending last season with Malmö (11 goals, nine assists, 46 games) in the Swedish Hockey League. He returned to Detroit in April and scored a goal in five appearances with the Wings.
Veleno has gained strength and experience over the past year and a half, using a long layoff forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to spend extra time in the gym. He’s 6 feet 1, 206 pounds, and able to hold his own on the ice. He’s a natural center but has the versatility to play wing. If he’s not on the opening roster, he’ll be in Detroit soon.
“He’s making his way to being close to NHL ready,” Blashill said. “I think there’s a lot of guys that are kind of in that mix. It’s that next step that’s probably more important — not being NHL ready but ready to help an NHL team be way better. That’s what we’re looking for — how do you help the Detroit Red Wings be a way better team, now just how can you make our team.
“Is Joe taking steps in the right direction? 100%. He’s worked his tail off over two years to change his body. He’s bought into being really good on the D-side of the puck. So then it depends where he would potentially fit in. Is he better than other guys? All that stuff comes into it. But he’s taking steps in the right direction.”
Injuries always play into decisions, and both Michael Rasmussen and Givani Smith, who will either be on the roster or on injured reserve, are dealing with undisclosed ailments.
Lucas Raymond, a first-round pick from 2020, has done everything in his power to show he should be in the lineup. Veteran Bobby Ryan is expected to receive a contract.
Veleno is trying to not let the anticipation get to him.
“I just try to go out there and play my game, and leave the distractions out of my head,” he said. “I try to work as hard as I can and see what kind of outcome happens. It’s definitely tough. You want to make the best impressions and not make mistakes, just play the right way and earn the coach’s trust and chip in offensively.
“I think of what got me here and when I’m at my best and try to use that to the best of my abilities.”
Ultimately it depends on where there is a fit. The Wings would rather Veleno be a 18-19 minute guy in Grand Rapids than a 7-8 minute guy in Detroit. Blashill pointed out he put Dylan Larkin on the team when he was 19.
“There was room my first year with Dylan Larkin,” Blashill said. “There’ll always be room for those types of players if they’re going to make your team significantly better.”
Contact Helene St. James at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.