While comparisons between Joseph Veleno and Connor McDavid will be inevitable, Veleno is determined to be his own man as he embarks on his first season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Like McDavid, who’s a rookie with the Edmonton Oilers this season, and New York Islanders star John Tavares, Veleno was granted exceptional status to enter the QMJHL as a 15-year-old. The six-foot-one 177-pound forward became just the fifth player in the Canadian Hockey League to receive the exemption and the first in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“(My focus) is just play like myself and don’t be compared to Connor McDavid or John Tavares, just be compared to myself,” Veleno said.
Selecting the Kirkland, Que., native was a no-brainer for Saint John Sea Dogs. Danny Flynn, the team’s new coach, said Veleno is remarkably mature for his age.
“His demeanour reminds me in many ways of when I was with the Moncton Wildcats, we had the first overall pick when we took Brandon Gormley,” Flynn said.
Gormley, who went on to be selected by the Arizona Coyotes in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft, “came in with that kind of quiet, confident, unassuming, go-about-his-job type of personality and Joe has been pretty much the same.”
Veleno, a centre who turned 15 on Jan. 13, finished 12th in Quebec midget triple-A scoring last season with 52 points in 41 games for the Lac-St-Louis Lions. He also played for Quebec at the 2015 Canada Games.
He joins a Sea Dogs team that finished third in the Maritimes Division last season, but was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Baie-Comeau Drakkar. Flynn sees plenty of potential in his young squad, which returns 17 players from last year’s team, including seven NHL draft picks.
Thomas Chabot, drafted 18th overall by the Ottawa Senators in June, will lead the team on the blue line. Chabot attended Canada’s world junior summer development camp and had two assists in two games against the Czech Republic.
The Rimouski Oceanic are the defending league champions and represented the QMJHL in the MasterCard Memorial Cup last spring along with the host Quebec Remparts. The Oceanic open their season Thursday against the Shawinigan Cataractes.
Unlike McDavid with the rebuilding Erie Otters in the OHL, Veleno won’t be depended on from Day 1 to carry the team.
Flynn said Veleno, who scored twice and added two assists in four pre-season games, has settled into a third-line role but there have been games where his line has led the team.
“He’ll see some power-play time. He’ll get his minutes, he’s good enough to play a regular shift and some power play right off the bat,” Flynn said. “And the other thing is because he’s been humble and unassuming, he’s been accepted very well by the guys on the team. They all see his immense potential and talent and they’ve welcomed him with open arms.”
The Sea Dogs open their season Saturday against the Halifax Mooseheads before facing the Wildcats on Sunday afternoon.
Flynn sees promise in Veleno but also points out that he won’t become a McDavid or Tavares overnight.
“He loves the game, he’s extremely committed to the game and has great skill and hockey sense,” Flynn said. “When you factor those things in and factor in that he’s only 15 years of age he’s certainly got the potential to be a real good player in this league and beyond.”