Joseph Veleno will now be associated with an elite group of young players, some of whom are already established stars in the NHL.
The 15 year old Veleno, who isn’t NHL Draft-eligible until 2018, was selected first overall by the Saint John Sea Dogs in the 2015 QMJHL Entry Draft on Saturday. He was a year younger than anyone else eligible, and becomes just the fifth player in CHL history to have been granted “exceptional player” status, the first outside of the OHL.
John Tavares was the first to be granted the status in 2005. And while it was a groundbreaking decision, it wasn’t particularly one that sparked any controversy. Tavares scored 77 points in 65 games in his 15-year-old season for the Oshawa Generals. Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid and more recently Sean Day are the only other players to be drafted into junior hockey a year early.
Veleno, a natural center, has tremendous skill for his age, but hasn’t quite registered the offensive numbers that his forward predecessors Tavares and McDavid did in their one year of midget hockey. In his one season with the Toronto Marlboros minor midget AAA team, Tavares recorded 158 points in 72 games. McDavid, meanwhile, played a combined 82 games in midget with that same team, scoring a remarkable 209 points. For comparison sake, Veleno, who turned 15 in January, recorded 52 points in 41 games for the Lac St-Louis Lions of the Quebec Midget AAA League. He finished 12th in league scoring, which doesn’t exactly inspire Tavares or McDavid comparisons. But, even as a 2000-born player, he was the best player available in this year’s draft. Maxime Comtois, who was picked third in the draft and is a year old than Veleno, finished the regular season with just four more points than Veleno.
The Kirkland, QC native isn’t exactly small for his age, or by QMJHL standards either; he’s listed at 6’0 and 170 pounds, which, for comparisons sake, is about the same size, or perhaps a little larger than Sea Dogs’ forward Adam Marsh, who many expect to be a mid-round pick in this month’s NHL Draft. Out of the Quebec midget league’s top 20 scorers, Veleno also had the third most penalty minutes with 57, so he knows how to mix it up and isn’t intimidated by physical play. His hockey smarts and ability to play a 200-foot game is something that has scouts excited about the young prospect.
Veleno offered a few words to a TVA reporter immediately after being taken by the Sea Dogs, but was justifiably at a loss for words.
“You can’t explain it; it’s just amazing to be here and live the moment,” he said, before the draft moved onward.
Hockey Canada had originally denied Veleno’s application for exceptional player status, but changed its mind just two days before the draft. What could possibly have happened in the month between the governing body deciding to reverse its deicision is anyone’s guess; regardless, it gives the QMJHL an elevated profile for next season at the very least. And the fact that he is going to be playing in Saint John is a dream come true from a public relations standpoint. Sure, it would have been nice to see the Quebec kid stay in Quebec, but Veleno lives just outside of Montreal so his English isn’t an issue, and he’ll be joining a team that is primed to compete for the league championship – and Memorial Cup – in the next few seasons.
The Sea Dogs will likely be the CHL team with the most players drafted in this year’s NHL Draft. It’s essentially a lock that four players will be taken, and estimates range anywhere from six-eight if you follow draft rankings. The team’s best young player, however, isn’t draft-eligible until 2016. Luke Green, an offensive defenseman, should be a first round pick depending on how next season plays out.
Adding Veleno was hardly a surprise once the Hockey Canada decision came down on Thursday. Sea Dogs’ general manager Darrell Young, speaking to Halifax Mooseheads broadcaster John Moore, spoke highly of the player prior to Thursday’s decision and was a big supporter of allowing Veleno to play in the QMJHL a year early all along. Said Young to Moore, “He’s already been given exceptional status three times, so there’s no reason why he should be denied a fourth opportunity,” referring to his entry to bantam and midget a year early, as well as the fact he played in the Canada Games as a 14 year old.
“That’s another thing that’s in his favour as well, is that we have a good young hockey team; it’s not like he’s going to a team that’s in last place trying to rebuild. We’re a team that has the capabilities of competing next year and the year after and the year after that. He’s going to be surrounded by good young players,” added Young.
He will be a big part of the team’s core for the next three years before he is drafted, and given where the first three exceptional status players have gone in the NHL Draft (including McDavid as a likely No. 1 pick), the bar has already been set for Veleno in 2018. His development might not have been hurt much by waiting a year, and he certainly would have avoided the media circus and expectations that will follow, but he’s a player that likes the challenge and, thus far, has risen above it.
Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7