After spending the last four years in juniors, Joe Veleno knows he has a big step ahead of him. And then another after that. The 19-year-old is prepared to turn pro this season, with his final destination in Detroit.
He was asked after the first practice of development camp Tuesday if he sees an opportunity to play in the upcoming campaign for the Red Wings.
"I do, I think so," he said. "For any guy here, it’s a big opportunity. Detroit’s in a big rebuild and there’s a lot of open spots. I’m definitely taking that into consideration and giving it my best to play on the team next year."
Now he has a chance to back up his words in the NHL. To do so, he'll have to prove two things this summer. One, that he's ready for the speed of the game to increase, and two, that he has the muscle to win one-on-one battles against grown men.
"It’s one of the biggest challenges coming from juniors, managing how to create time and space on the ice for yourself and how to make plays at a higher pace," he said. "That’s one thing I’m definitely going to have to work on this summer and get used to for next year. ... Guys are bigger, stronger, quicker, so you have to be ready for that."
In all likelihood, Veleno will start the season with Grand Rapids in the AHL. It will allow him to adjust to the pro game away from the pressures of the NHL. If he acquits himself well, he could be summoned to Detroit.
He acknowledged Tuesday that he has some growing to do on the defensive side of the puck, a process he began in earnest last season. He said he started to play more of a 200-foot game and clean up "the little things that are going to translate well in the pros."
Veleno held up well in training camp last year, then tallied a couple assists in three preseason games. His speed and vision appeared to play at the next level. As he enters a legitimate tryout this year, that experience should help.
"It gave me a lot of confidence. I saw that I was able to play with some of the older guys who had already turned pro and I was able to keep up with them," Veleno said. "Already then it gave me an idea of where I’m at and how I can prepare myself for next year."
On Monday night, Steve Yzerman addressed the players at development camp to tell them what to expect and to remind them there are spots up for grabs on the NHL roster. For most of them, the latter message doesn't apply, not yet. For someone like Veleno, it most certainly does.
Detroit drafted just one center this year, and waited until its sixth pick to do so. That sends an encouraging message to the centers within. On the Red Wings, that group is headlined by captain-in-waiting Dylan Larkin. It may soon include Veleno, as early as this season.
"It was a long four years in juniors," he said. "I’m excited to jump another level and get things going in the pros."