TSN reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on Team Canada. The team practised at DRFG Arena in Brno, Czech Republic on Friday.
Did Joe Veleno have a welcome-to-the-pros moment this season?
“Yeah, I did,” the 19-year-old said with a smile. “It took me long enough to score my first goal.”
Veleno’s first goal with the Grand Rapid Griffins didn’t come until his seventh game. It felt like an eternity for Veleno, who finished his final QMJHL season in Drummondville with 104 points in 59 games.
Veleno only had two points in his first 12 AHL games. His longest point drought last season was two games.
“There are no days off,” Veleno said of life in the AHL. “Every time they come to the rink it’s time to work hard and help the team any way you can and that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed. It’s an everyday league and you got to battle and play every game like it’s your last.”
The native of Kirkland, Que. has five goals and seven assists in 29 games this season and while he’s not producing like he did with the Voltigeurs, he now feels like a more complete player.
“That was the biggest thing, just being well-rounded and being that 200-foot player even if it’s sacrificing the offence to be good defensively,” he said. “If I’m good defensively I’ll be on the ice more and get more opportunity to have the puck on my stick and make plays.”
Team Canada expects Veleno to drive the bus at both ends of the ice at the World Juniors. On Friday, he skated on the top line with Rimouski’s Alexis Lafreniere and Kelowna sharpshooter Nolan Foote. Lafreniere and Veleno looked great together in the summer at the World Junior Showcase.
“He’s really fast, really smart, good hockey IQ,” Lafreniere said. “He’s so good offensively. So, for me, it’s fun. You just get open and the puck will come.”
“They’re three big boys,” observed Halifax defenceman Jared McIsaac, “protect the puck extremely well and they can all shoot the puck and make plays, so there’s a lot to that line that defencemen are going to have a hard time with.”
The first player to be granted exceptional status in the Quebec league, Veleno was able to play major junior hockey as a 15-year-old. It also allowed him to graduate to the AHL at 19.
Team Canada believes that will give him a leg up as he makes a return to the junior game.
“You can see his maturity,” said assistant coach André Tourigny. “The way he carries himself, he looks like a pro. I had a few chats with him. We talked about his season so far, his experience from last year, his expectations and, all of it, you can see you’re talking with a more mature person from a year ago.”
Veleno captained Canada at the under-18 level (2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup) and, as one of five returning players for Team Canada at this year’s World Juniors, will be leaned on for leadership in the Czech Republic. How motivated is he to avenge the sixth-place finish last year?
“Extremely,” he says. “We were all frustrated and upset and, personally, I think we could’ve done a lot better and I think this year’s our chance … you just never know when you’re going to get another opportunity.”
Canada led last year’s quarter-final against Finland 1-0 until the final minute before allowing the tying goal and losing in overtime. That heartbreaker followed a New Year’s Eve loss to the Russians. Just like that a promising 3-0 start to the tournament turned into the worst-ever result on home ice and Veleno won’t let the newcomers forget the hard lessons learned.
“All the guys got to realize that it’s such a short tournament, quick turnarounds and anything can happen,” Veleno said. “The message is going to be to give it all every single game and every game’s important and every minute of the game is important.”
Serving as the No. 2 goalie in Guelph the last couple seasons wasn’t fun for Nico Daws, but it may have helped him on Thursday night as he made his debut for Team Canada coming in cold halfway through.
“I’ve backed up for two years,” Daws said with a smile, “so I’ve done that a few times before.”
After watching Portland’s Joel Hofer provide a clean sheet in the opening 30 minutes, Daws appeared to be locked in immediately.
“I came into the game strong,” he said. “They had a couple good chances as soon as I came into the net and that definitely raised my confidence.”
Passed over in June’s NHL draft, Daws has not only established himself as the Storm’s go-to guy this season, he’s emerged as one of the best junior goalies in the country. The big question here was how he would react to the pressure of playing for Team Canada for the first time and doing it in Europe.
What stood out?
“Definitely the bigger ice,” Daws said. “I have to be a lot more patient on pucks. They have a lot more time than you think and you have to make your adjustments on angles, but other than that nothing too different.”
Hofer was in the same position having never played for Canada prior to Thursday.
“It’s a special feeling and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” the Blues prospect said. “There’s going to be nerves, but you got to accept it and play your game. I played pretty calm in there. I didn’t overdo things. I just played my game and it went well.”
The only hiccup for either goalie came in the shootout. Canada won in regulation 3-0, but both teams agreed to play a four-on-four overtime and hold a shootout to prepare for the tournament.
Daws allowed three goals on five shots as Canada fell 3-2. Immediately after the game, Daws huddled with goalie coach Jason LaBarbera and consultant Lyle Mast to address the issue.
What’s the key in the shootout?
“Just having a plan,” Daws said. “I’ve never really been a great shootout goalie and we’re going to work on it this week. They have a couple pointers that they want to work with me on and I’m sure it’ll be an easy fix.”
Daws has only stopped 19 of 30 attempts in the OHL (63.3 per cent) and is nine of 14 this season.
Hofer has stopped 24 of 33 attempts in the WHL (72.7 per cent), including 10 of 13 this season.
Oilers prospect Olivier Rodrigue, who didn’t dress on Thursday, has stopped 24 of 34 attempts in the QMJHL (70.6 per cent), including all three this season.
While Daws is still trying to solve the shootout, Ty Dellandrea seems to have it figured out.
“He’s very patient,” Daws noted. “He’ll wait for you to bite first and as soon as you do, it’s over. He’ll put it in.”
Canada has worked on shootouts during every practice and the Flint centre has been a stand-out performer. In Thursday’s game he was one of two Canadians to score, joining Lafreniere.
“It’s a big part of this tournament,” Dellandrea said, “so if we need a guy to score then I feel comfortable being able to go in there and score.”
How did he become comfortable in shootouts?
“Just a lot of reps, a lot of practise and learning off other players,” he explained.
Who does Dellandrea enjoy watching?
“I like to watch (T.J.) Oshie,” he said with a smile referencing the American star who put on a show at the Sochi Olympics. “He’s pretty good in the shootout.”
Dellandrea also scored on his one attempt in the OHL this season, but prior to that had been 0/6.
Here are the career CHL numbers for Team Canada’s top skaters:
Quinton Byfield 3/4 (75 per cent)
Lafreniere 4/8 (50 per cent)
Veleno 3/6 (50 per cent)
Barrett Hayton 1/2 (50 per cent)
Akil Thomas 6/13 (46.2 per cent)
Aidan Dudas 3/7 (42.9 per cent)
Foote 5/12 (41.7 per cent)
Jared McIsaac 2/6 (33.3 per cent)
At every practice, the shootout work is turned into a competition. The team is split into two groups and the quickest to score eight pucks wins, with the losing team going for a skate around the rink. If a player scores then they keep going until there’s a miss or save. All the defencemen are on one side paired with one forward line, while the other three forward lines form the other team.
You would think the defence-dominated team would struggle, but that hasn’t been the case. Are the coaches surprised?
“To be honest, yes,” said Tourigny with a chuckle. “It started as a little bit of a joke on the ice. We put the defencemen on the side and said, ‘Which line wants to be with the defencemen?’ And everybody was looking somewhere else and since then everybody wants to be with the defencemen. They’ve won almost all of them. They have a few good shooters out there.”
McIsaac looked so good in practice that he was selected to be one of the shooters against the Swiss.
“I guess I have a little bit of a touch in the shootout,” said McIsaac. “The goalie made a good save last night. I put it where I wanted to.”
On Friday, the shootout competition came down to the wire with the defence team, which included the second line (Quinton Byfield, Barrett Hayton, Raphael Lavoie and Dylan Cozens), losing by one. But Jacob Bernard-Docker and Ty Smith converted on a couple nice moves while Kevin Bahl also put one in.
While the defencemen look pretty good in the shootout, they still have work to do when it comes to even-strength play.
“Our D corps yesterday were okay,” Tourigny said. “We can be better. Our goalie made key saves at key moments. If I look at all our D, maybe Jamie Drysdale might’ve been our best defenceman. The other guys were fine, they were no problem, but I know they have another level.”
The projected shutdown pair of Bahl and Bernard-Docker struggled to exit the zone at times. Tourigny pointed out it takes a bit longer for defence pairs to generate chemistry.
“As soon as we got a little bit of pushback from the Swiss and we were in our zone, you need that chemistry, that confidence, that communication with your partner,” the 67’s head coach noted, “and I think we will get better and start to build that chemistry between those pairings. We had a good meeting this morning as well to sort out a few situations, a few grey areas, so we’ll be better.”
Dellandrea, London’s Liam Foudy and Owen Sound’s Aidan Dudas formed Canada’s most consistent line in the pre-tournament opener. They play against each other in the OHL and played together in the Russia series.
“You put them together and they buzz,” said Daws. “They’re all good buddies and they love playing together.”
“I like how fast we are and how we all work hard and work together,” said Dellandrea. “They’re extremely fast. They’re always above the puck, but when we get a break they’re taking off and they’re going fast.”
Sidelined with a broken finger on his left hand during the selection camp, Dudas was playing for the first time since Nov. 29, but didn’t look rusty at all.
“No, not at all,” agreed Dellandrea. “You couldn’t even tell he was hurt. It’s fun to play with a guy like that. He’s always so hard on the puck and he’s loud and you can hear him everywhere so it makes it easy for everyone.”
Dudas finished with two assists, the only Canadian to post a multi-point night.
“He has a lot of energy out there,” said coach Dale Hunter. “He’s all over top of the puck. He’s a true worker with skill. They’re hard to play against. They’re all on top of the puck. If you’re a skilled guy you wouldn’t want to play against them because they’re hounding all the time.”
With Veleno joining the group, there are now 14 forwards in Canada’s camp and someone has to go soon.
Among those guys on the bubble, no one seemed to help their cause more on Thursday than Dawson Mercer. Initially listed as the 13th forward, the Drummondville winger ended the night with the game-winning goal, a nifty deflection off a Drysdale shot.
“He works hard and he can play any position,” observed Hunter, “he can play right wing or left wing or centre, so that’s an added advantage and, also, he’s tenacious on the puck.”
Not invited to the World Junior Showcase in the summer, the draft-eligible Mercer has always been an underdog in this process, but impressed in the selection camp and keeps finding ways to stand out.
The injury to Dudas led Canada to bring an extra forward overseas and kept Mercer in the mix.
“It’s part of hockey these days,” he said of the stressful scenario. “Playing for Canada at the World Juniors, there’s a lot of competition here, but I want to make sure I put my best foot forward and I feel like I’m just going to give it my all.”
Niagara’s Akil Thomas and Halifax’s Benoit-Olivier Groulx also appear to be on uncertain ground as the management team makes a final determination.
“We won’t carry a guy just to carry a guy,” Tourigny said, “but at the same time we want to make sure we take the right decision.”
Lines at Friday’s practice: