When the Red Wings finalized their opening night roster earlier this week, there was much jubilation among fans as top prospect Lucas Raymond, 19, made the team after an impressive preseason. This fell in line with Yzerman’s sentiment that the team needed to allow their youngsters to start entering the lineup and seeing what they could contribute to the team, but that they also had to earn their opportunity to do so.
The opening for Raymond was in part created by the extended absence of Jakub Vrana who will be out for at least the first four months of the season. The team’s confidence in Raymond also was likely a large factor in the release of Bobby Ryan from his PTO. But what also allowed Raymond to make the lineup was leap-frogging another top prospect two years his elder in Joe Veleno. Leading into the preseason many pundits pointed to Veleno as one to watch for breaking into the NHL lineup. While Veleno performed admirably this preseason in his attempt to earn a spot, there is no doubt that Raymond deserved the first shot at it given what he’s shown.
Given that the team announced they’d be carrying only 13 forwards on the roster, this meant Veleno was going to have to bounce a veteran to earn a spot. While Joe had flashes during the preseason that showed he was ready to make the leap, the team seemed to believe he didn’t show it consistently enough to earn a spot over veterans like Vladislav Namestnikov, Adam Erne, or Sam Gagner. There also clearly wasn’t any room for him in the top six group. It could be argued that he looked better than some of those that are going to slot in on the 4th line, but the team made it apparent that playing the 4th line in the NHL likely wasn’t preferable for management to playing top line minutes in Grand Rapids. So the end result was Veleno being boxed out, for now.
The team is hoping Veleno can get off to a hot start in Grand Rapids and show that he can be consistently among the league’s best players and knock down the door to get back to Detroit. The good news is that if he can do that, there is a very realistic path back to the big club, rather than a log jam like the team has had in the past.
Looking at the 13 forwards the team will start the season with, and specifically the top six forwards, there aren’t many players the staff likely wants to move up the lineup from the bottom six if an injury occurs. If any of Bertuzzi, Larkin, Raymond, Fabbri, Suter, or Zadina go down for a stretch of games, moving players like Rasmussen, Namestnikov, Erne or Gagner up doesn’t provide much confidence.
Similarly, amongst the candidates for a call-up from Grand Rapids, most don’t fit the skill player mold for a top six role beyond Veleno, Hirose, and maybe Berggren if he acclimates quickly. Veleno would be the betting favourite to get the first chance for this type of call-up. This comes with the caveat though that it would require someone to go down with a lasting injury to give him a run of games. If it’s only for a game or two, the team would likely just shuffle who they have, and perhaps call-up someone like Witkowski. Likewise if a replacement is needed at the bottom of the lineup, the 13th man Rowney, or someone like Witkoski, or perhaps Chase Pearson would be the call-up.
Vrana won’t factor into lineup decisions for quite some time. So much so that by the time he returns other openings could be created for Veleno through bodies moving out as the trade deadline approaches, when the Wings are very likely going to be sellers again.
One player who could receive that crack at an opening in the top nine forwards before Veleno would be a player not currently under contract with the team in Bobby Ryan. While Ryan was released from his PTO this week, it’s not out of the cards that he and Yzerman have a handshake agreement for a return for the veteran winger should a change or replacement be needed in the lineup. Especially if it’s early in the season that the need arises for a player, it’s more likely to fall to someone like Ryan, should he still be available.
Another way Veleno could get an opportunity is if the team gets off to a really slow start and struggles offensively. If the newly reworked powerplay goes on an extended drought or the top six fail to generate chances, the team may look to inject a different player to try a new mix. Perhaps Raymond stumbles out of the gate and the team decides he’s being sent down after 9 games to develop further, and to slide his ELC one more season. On that note, Veleno does not have that same factor working against him as he is not eligible to have his contract slide.
Also bubbling under the surface is if any turmoil develops with Bertuzzi. His name has popped up in the rumor mill again after Yzerman’s press conference indicating the winger is not vaccinated. The trouble with any of these rumors is his trade value has to be limited for now given he is coming back from a serious injury and what his vaccine status means for games in Canada. But that’s not to say that if the team really is frustrated with him, they may give him a short leash early in the season, and send him to the press box for a short stint to send a message. It could also just be a result of a minor setback from his injury.
That’s two specific examples but the same opportunity applies if any of Larkin, Suter, Zadina, or Fabbri are out of the lineup. What’s beneficial for Veleno is that while he is naturally a center, he is versatile and could easily slide in at the wing to start. Honestly that is likely preferred by the team even if it’s Larkin or Suter out of the lineup. Similar to Larkin, Veleno could start his career on the wing before acclimating to the big league and assuming his natural center position. Veleno is also versatile in that he can play all over the lineup, including a powerplay or penalty kill role with his skating ability. While he is less likely to be called up to replace the likes of lower lineup players like Namestnikov or Erne over other veteran options, he very well could slide into a third line role if called upon.
However, all these scenarios are predicated on the fact that Veleno gets off to a strong start in Grand Rapids. If he falters early, the team will leave him there until he rises to the top. Veleno has shown in the past that it takes him some time to adjust to each new level of competition. While he’s spent plenty of time in Grand Rapids already, it’s possible he doesn’t get off to the start everyone hopes he does. But the team is counting on him to take a lead role with the Griffins from the get go.
So while many may have been disappointed that Veleno isn’t going to start the season in the Red Wings lineup, there are plenty of ways for him to work his way up into the roster. If he starts the season strong in Grand Rapids, he is likely only a single injury away to a top nine forward from a call-up to Detroit. The only people between him and that spot are himself and perhaps Bobby Ryan. Don’t be surprised if Veleno is wearing the winged wheel by sometime in November, and hopefully never lets go after that.