Detroit — There were quite a few players in Joe Veleno’s age and experience range who didn’t have an opportunity to play hockey this winter.
So the fact Veleno went through an entire Swedish Hockey League season — the Red Wings loaned the 2018 first-round pick to Malmo in October — makes Veleno thankful in a variety of ways.
The hockey, the life experience in Sweden and getting to play a different brand of hockey.
For a 21-year-old awaiting his first shot in the NHL, it was a tremendous learning tool.
“I enjoyed it a lot, it was a real good experience,” said Veleno, who is in quarantine until Sunday, having returned from Sweden a week ago. Next, he will jump into the Grand Rapids Griffins lineup and possibly the Red Wings plans before the NHL season is done.
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“There were a lot of things to get adjusted to, obviously, but afterward, I really liked it,” Veleno said. “I liked the experience I had with the guys and the team. They welcomed me with open arms and took good care of me.”
The Wings were able to place many of their top prospects — Veleno, Moritz Seider and Michael Rasmussen, among others — with a variety of European teams before the season began.
The ability for these young players to continue competing regularly, get valuable repetitions in games and practices and continue to live and breathe hockey was vital.
“I really liked being in a team environment, structured environment, and getting to play some competitive hockey,” Veleno said. “It helped me (take a step forward). Just being able to get on the ice and play games, it was good for my development, and then all the things I learned and how I was playing there.
“Now, I can bring back that experience here.”
In 46 games with Malmo, Veleno had 11 goals and nine assists, tied for third on the team in goals, and fourth in points.
But it was a little different hockey than Veleno was used to in North America. The bigger ice surfaces in Europe, in Sweden specifically, made for another adjustment for Veleno.
“It did for sure, especially stepping out to the ice for the first time,” Veleno said. “It felt sometimes like I had too much time with the puck and didn’t know what to do with it, just so much time.
“Let’s say your skating in the offensive zone. You kind of think you’re so far away from the net, (whereas) in North America you can shoot the puck from all cylinders and you see goals go in from anywhere from the boards or the goal line.
“But over there (in Sweden), on the big ice, if you shoot from there, you feel like you’re giving the puck away because your chances of scoring are so slim.
“You feel like you’re so far away from everything, and those extra steps to get closer to the net or more inside the circles and the scoring chances, are (so important).”
Many front-office hockey personnel believe the Swedish Hockey League is the best league outside of North America. Veleno now sees why.
Things there contrast with the NHL or American Hockey League.
“It’s different, with the bigger ice surface and there’s not as much physicality as you’d see in North America,” said Veleno, who had plenty of interaction with former Wings defenseman and current player development coach Niklas Kronwall. “Guys aren’t as big as in North America and it’s a lot of skilled players that are smaller and shifty and they are fast. It’s a fast game.
“There are real skilled players, good young players, and former guys who’ve played in the KHL (Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League) or in the NHL that are now playing at home.
“It was a good experience, it helped me.”
Malmo’s season came to an end in a best-of-three play-in series, losing in two games.
Veleno wasn’t part of either game. He missed the final three weeks with a concussion/whiplash.
“I was on the ice and as I was getting up, the opposing player kind of reversed and hit me on the ground as I was getting up,” Veleno said. “It was more of a whiplash than getting my head pounded into the glass, or something like that. I did have a mild concussion. But now it’s just a matter of getting rid of the tensions in my neck.
“But I should be ready to go once I get back.”
Another part of Veleno’s game that expanded in Sweden was the fact he played a lot of wing, instead of his normal center position.
Malmo was struggling for offense early in the season, and the coaching staff put Veleno on the wing to spark things.
The move helped the lineup, and showed Veleno can be effective on the flanks, too.
“It’s not a huge difference, I’ve played center my whole life so it was a good opportunity to get to play some wing, and you never know, late in the game if I’m out there with another centerman, it’s good to be versatile and play in all positions.”
Veleno could jump into the Griffins’ lineup at some point next week.
With only three weeks left in the NHL schedule, there isn’t a lot of time left for Veleno to get accustomed to the NHL.
But the Wings want to get Veleno into a few games, if possible.
“There’s potential that he could play games for us this year,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “Do I know that for a fact? No. There’s certainly the potential he could, it’s something I’ll discuss with (general manager) Steve (Yzerman) and, ultimately, it’s important to get looks at certain guys so Steve and his management team will determine which guys are going to be guys that we want to get experience in the NHL with.”
Veleno is eagerly awaiting that NHL opportunity, but knows it will not be handed to him.
“It would be a dream come true to be able to play for the Wings, and hopefully I get that chance,” Veleno said. “But I know I have to put in the work and prove I deserve that chance.
“It’s up to me to kind of create an opportunity.”
The Wings signed forward Lucas Raymond, last year’s No. 1 draft pick, to a three-year entry-level contract beginning with the 2021-22 season.
Raymond, 19, was drafted fourth overall and had a fine season playing for Frolunda (Sweden), with six goals and 12 assists in 34 games.
Raymond (5-foot-10, 183 pounds) missed 18 games toward the end of the schedule with an undisclosed injury.
The Wings haven’t specified where Raymond will play next season, although some time in Grand Rapids seems a likely bet given his injury, and stalled development, this winter.
Blackhawks at Red Wings
►Faceoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
►Outlook: The Red Wings (16-23-6) and Chicago (20-19-5) conclude a two-game series. …The Wings have won three consecutive games for the first time this season. …The Wings will be without forwards Robby Fabbri and Evgeny Svechnikov, who are both listed day-to-day.
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