Detroit — So what would be best for Joe Veleno at this point of the season?
Veleno has been struggling to earn substantial minutes while centering the fourth line for the Wings, although he did earn an assist — ending a 14-game drought without points — in Friday’s 3-2 shootout victory in Pittsburgh.
Veleno played just over 13 minutes Friday, which is just over the 12 minutes and 18 seconds he’s averaging.
Or would it be better for Veleno, 22, to return to Grand Rapids and play more than 20 minutes a night and in all situations?
“Both Steve (Yzerman, Wings’ general manager) and I are similar in a sense that we’ll make decisions,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “That’s not to say we don’t have a long-term outlook on things, but a lot changes in this world that we live in. Right now, we take things day by day and we make the best decision for our hockey team and for each individual player’s development, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Veleno has three goals and two assists in 28 games, with a minus-7 rating. He’s gotten opportunities on the power play, but not for extended periods of time.
Still, Blashill isn’t looking at Veleno’s offensive production as an indicator in terms of how Veleno is progressing.
“When he went to GR, the staff in GR and the development staff did a really good job of making sure he understood for him to be a good player in this league, like every player in this league, he has to be good on both sides of the puck,” Blashill said. “He’s worked hard at it. He worked hard at it in Sweden last year, and he’s a better defensive player than when he first came into our organization. That’s a great part of development.
“A lot of people look at development and just look at points. That’s not really the reality of it. Very few guys can come into this league and score their way past mistakes, if any.”
Veleno has gotten bigger physically since joining the Wings’ organization as a first-round draft pick in 2018, but is learning how to use his body.
“There’s times he can use his big body to win more battles and not play just with his stick to win battles, and that’s a learned process,” Blashill said. “He’s put on a lot of strength on the last couple of years. It’s also understanding how to harness that strength and understanding the level of player he’s going up against and that it’s harder to win stick battles.”
It sounds as if Veleno will get more time in the NHL, for now. But the Wings claimed forward Gemel Smith off waivers last week, and after a brief conditioning stint in Grand Rapids, Smith is now on the Wings’ roster.
“Joe is doing a fine job. I haven’t been disappointed in Joe,” Blashill said. “Can he grab more? Certainly. It’s not always easy. His ice time has been fine. It’s not that he can’t do anything in that time but it’s not necessarily going to lend itself into being easy to grab more.
“How does he grab more? He can use his big body to win more battles, find ways to be a little quicker in his decision-making with the puck. He’s a young kid playing in the NHL and it’s not going to be easy, but I’ve been totally fine with his progress.”
Friday’s victory in Pittsburgh was highlighted by the work of goaltender Calvin Pickard, giving Alex Nedeljkovic the evening off.
The Griffin’s No. 1 goalie made 36 saves, and denied all three Penguins shooters in the shootout, to earn his first NHL victory since May 8, 2021.
Pickard, 29, has starred in Grand Rapids (13-8-5, 2.40 goals-against average, .927 save percentage), which gave him confidence heading into facing the Penguins.
“It’s been a good season for me; I’ve played a lot in Grand Rapids, which has kept me sharp,” Pickard said. “I got two periods (of playing time) the other night (replacing Nedeljkovic) and I wanted to go out there (Friday) and have a good start. The guys played real well in front of me, got some timely goals.”
Pickard is a popular teammate in the organization, and it was obvious the Wings were excited to see Pickard earn Friday’s victory after the shootout.
“He’s got a great personality, a guy that people like to follow,” Blashill said. “He’s worked extremely hard to continue to stay on top of his game. He’s had an excellent year in Grand Rapids. He’s a guy that guys want to play hard for. He’s been a good goalie in this league for a long time. He’s definitely a guy who when he’s between the pipes, guys rally around.”