I caught up with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Mike Vellucci one-on-one this week to talk about his team's performance and more as the 2019-20 AHL season remains on pause due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Vellucci is back at his family's home in Detroit, and said he's been using this period to "clean garages and basements and get things done" that he hasn't had time to do in recent years. After winning the Calder Cup last season with the Charlotte Checkers in June, then getting hired by the Penguins three weeks later, he hasn't had much down time in the past 18 months or so.
Vellucci said that, to his knowledge, no Wilkes-Barre players have felt symptomatic or had to be tested for coronavirus at all during this time. Many players have returned to their home countries, and some remain in Wilkes-Barre, and all have home workout plans developed by Wilkes-Barre's strength and conditioning coach to stay in shape during this time.
"I've been coaching 27 years and was a player before that, and I've never seen anything like this before," he said. "(The day the AHL postponed its season) when we decided not to practice in the morning, it was more of a coaching philosophy. You always do what's right, it's not always about wins and losses. It's about doing what's right for the players, the state, the country, the world. Everything that's been thrown our way, the thing that I keep in the back of my mind is to do what's right."
With the coronavirus talk out of the way, we had a conversation about his thoughts on his team this season, namely the performances of all of the NHL-contracted rookies on the roster.
Q: Are there any players who stand out as guys who were really making strides in their games before the shutdown?
A: “There's a lot of the younger guys that had great years up to that point. (Pierre-Olivier) Joseph, to me, made tremendous strides. At the end of the year, by Christmas, was on the top pair for us with call-ups and injuries and everything. He was playing his best hockey even when we got guys back from injuries and call-ups, he still played on the top pair and just took his game to a next level. He just kept getting better and better all year."
Q: Is Joseph a guy that you could see getting NHL time next season with the progress he's made?
A: “Yeah. I believe if he's called upon he will do a good job, for sure. I even thought this year, with the strides he's made, he could be a call-up. I'm not trying to rush him to the NHL, but can he fill in for games? Since Christmas on, I think yes, he's shown tremendous growth."
Q: He had a rough start to the year getting mono and losing 15 or so pounds. What does that say about his work ethic to be able to put that weight back on and come back the way he did?
A: “We talk about it as coaches all the time. What impresses us the most is his willingness to listen, to learn, and willingness to put the time in. I can't say enough about it. One of the conversations I've had with him is that everyone always wants to talk about his weight. To me, some people are never going to have weight. But what he can have is strength. He gets stronger. There are guys who don't weigh a lot who are wiry strong. I told him early on in the season that I really don't want to talk about his weight at all, I'm tired of everyone talking about his weight. Let's talk about his strength. Has that improved? We did midseason testing and his leg strength showed tremendous growth, more than anybody else. That, to me, proves that it didn't matter that he was the same weight as he started, because he got stronger."
Q: The other rookie defenseman, Niclas Almari, when I spoke to him earlier this season, he said the biggest adjustment for him this season was realizing that there's a lot less room for error and mistakes here compared to back home in Finland. What sort of conversations did you have with him about that and do you feel like he made progress in minimizing his mistakes as the year went on?
A: "Yes. I hate to say it, but it's a harder adjustment for someone from outside North America to come over and play. It's just not on the ice, it's off the ice. It's the language, the food, living on your own, being away from your family. Then on the ice, it's a different game. It's a smaller rink. But he showed a lot of strides. His talent is very good. He's big, he can skate, he has a really hard shot, he's smart hockey-sense wise, he's a good player. He just need a little more confidence and just needs to play a little more in this kind of environment. He showed a lot of strides. His talent is something that stands out."
Q: Emil Larmi, I know earlier in the year you said he could be too aggressive at times. Is that something you had conversations with him about, or is that mostly (goaltending development coach) Andy Chiodo, and did you see improvements in that area?
A: "It's definitely something Andy talks to him about, but it's also something I talk to him about. Unfortunately for him, he's had a tough year. But it's not his fault. It was a difficult season how everything played out. We got Casey (DeSmith), it just changed the whole thing. He got injured after he had a great start. It was just one of those things, the poor kid couldn't catch a break. It's nobody's fault, but where do we go from here? He just needed to get his confidence back. He went down to Wheeling and played really well. They were very happy with him, Andy was really happy with his growth. It was just a great learning experience for him. The same thing when I was in Charlotte with Carolina. (Alex) Nedeljkovic was the goalie of the year the year before in the OHL. He was a star goalie, he came down and struggled a bit in the American League. He went down to the East Coast, the next year he came in and had a great year. It's a tough environment for goaltenders. The biggest thing I talked to Larmi about was, it's the way it goes, you learn from it, we expect big things, and he should feel very good that he got through a tough year.
Q: What's he like in the locker room, around the guys? Whenever I've talked to him, he's like no other, he's very unique.
A: "He's unique. That's a great word. But I like it. I like guys that can be themselves. He's definitely an outgoing guy and a fun guy. What I like about it, you can be an outgoing and fun guy, but you've got to put the time in. There's nobody that works harder in practice than he does. When it's time to play, he puts that game face on and he competes."
Q: Another guy who came up from Wheeling at the end there, Justin Almeida. He only played two games before the shutdown, but did you see any changes in his confidence or overall game that came from his extended time in Wheeling?
A: "Yes, yes. To be honest with you, every guy that came up, they improved. It was great. I don't know if it was like, 'Oh man, when we get back, we better make sure we do what we're supposed to do.' But Almeida came back, he had a very good attitude. He's a smart, intelligent player. He can make plays, he just has to make them at a quicker span than he was accustomed to. It was a short little two games, but he played really well, I was really happy with his improvement."
Q: Jan Drozg was the other forward who came up from Wheeling, and the last two or three games you had him on the top line. How would you assess his season, and what does he need to do to be more successful next season? He spent some time in Wheeling, played on the third line in Wilkes and didn't get many minutes, then ended up taking on a big role at the end.
A: "He has all the talent, he just needs to learn how to play the game the right way and play every shift like it's his last shift. When he first got to Wilkes, his practice habits weren't good, he wasn't emptying the tank every shift, having turnovers. He was very disappointed when he went down to Wheeling the first time, and when he came back up, he was a different player. His practice habits were better. He learned to be a pro. They did a good job with him down there getting him ready. When he came back up here, he made the most of it, he did well. He had a little bit of a lull again, it's a long season, and we sent him down again for a couple of games because he missed a couple of games with us. I thought when he came back he picked up where he left off before when he first came back. He played very hard, smart. It's just a different game for him. I was holding him accountable every shift, and he came a long way. I expect him to be a good player for us next year."
Q: With that "playing the right way," or "being hard to play against," as Mike Sullivan likes to say, is Jordy Bellerive a guy who really exemplifies that mentality well?
A: "I give Belly credit. He came to me early in the year before the season and said, 'I don't want to go back to juniors and I don't want to go to the Coast. What do I have to do to stay here?' I said, 'You have to practice like every practice could be your last one, and build a season from there.' To his credit, he did, and that's why he stayed. He practiced hard, he played hard, he learned, he watched video, he asked questions, he was a good teammate. He took that to heart and was a pro. For a first-year guy, he had the best pro attitude off the hop."
Q: In dealing with these young guys, how do you teach that 'hard to play against' mindset and get them to buy in? I'm sure there are guys who come in from juniors or wherever who have just never had to play that way and got to be all-offense.
A: "I don't want to say it's 'hard to play against.' It's more of a mentality of 'it's tough to play here,' and you have to give everything you've got at all times. You just have to be a pro. Practice hard, show up on time, pay attention, want to get better, not make the same mistakes. That's what we're teaching them. You're going to make mistakes. I enjoy coaching young guys, because they're going to make mistakes. I just want to stop them from making the same mistakes over and over. It's a part of the game. Confidence is a lot to do with it, so I'm not harping on them all the time. I'm giving them encouragement, I'm giving them direction, and I always say, every young person wants structure. They want to know when they're doing well and they want to know when they're not doing well. They want honestly, and I just try to communicate with them at all times. They'll know. I'll tell them, 'You had a great shift, you had a great game, but you can't stop. You have to do it again next shift, next game.' I think they appreciate that."
Q: Kasper Bjorkqvist, he had a tough end to his season so early on, but what were you able to see from him from how he dealt with it from a mental standpoint?
A: “He’s definitely a positive presence. He’s such a good person. I really, really enjoyed my time with him this season. He's such a good guy. He's still around, still doing his therapy. He got on the ice just a little bit before we left. He worked on things he could still work on. Obviously, he’s a physical specimen with his strength and his conditioning. He worked on other aspects of his game that we talked to him about with Ty (Hennes), our skills guy. We talked about working on his hands and his shooting. If that guy didn’t stick handle three or four hours a day, he was doing it five or six hours a day. He’s such a hard worker, and a great guy. Really pleasant to be around, that's for sure.
Q: If the season does end up restarting, is he a possibility? The original timeline given would have been around early May.
A: “I'm not sure. I don't think so, ACLs are a really long-term thing. I don't think he would be ready, but I don't know 100 percent."
Q: The team lost a lot of key guys due to injury, call ups throughout the year, how did you like the team's response to those situations and how good of an opportunity was it for the young guys to step up?
A: “That's exactly what it was. It's unfortunate, I don't know if I've ever seen anything like it before. There were nine guys out at some times. Six called up, three injured, we played six rookie D one time. (Play-by-play guy/PR manager) Nick Hart gave me the stat the other day, we had nine guys score their first American League goals this year. It was difficult from that standpoint, but it was great learning experiences for the young guys. Bellerive playing in the top-six, Janny Drozg on the top line, I never sheltered him on the top line or second line, he was all over. All those guys. Everybody got big minutes. It was helpful for them to start their career for sure."
The last thing I wanted to ask Vellucci about was this video I stumbled upon on YouTube from his time in the OHL with the Plymouth Whalers. He got tossed from a game, and responded by gesturing to the official like he was an umpire tossing a manager in baseball. It's great:
Throwback to current WBS head coach Mike Vellucci getting ejected in an OHL game and pulling out the Uno reverse card pic.twitter.com/hv8rv3umir
— Taylor Haase (@TaylorHaasePGH) March 21, 2020
The video doesn't show the full story, so I asked about it.
"That's embarrassing," he laughed. "But anyways, the story was there was only like 30 seconds left in the game. We were winning like 4-1, or 5-1. There was only 30 seconds left and their team beat up a bunch of our young guys. I was mad, and the ref came over and tried to talk to me and I warned him and said, 'You need to protect the players.' All game long I warned him. So he wanted to come over and talk to me at the end, and I said I didn't want to talk to him. So he threw me out! I didn't want to talk to him, and he threw me out like a baseball guy, he put on a big show. I was mad, I thought it'd be funny to throw him out. But it's embarrassing. You never want to do that."
I tweeted that video a couple of days before talking to Vellucci, and he said his kids both saw it on Twitter and mentioned it to him.
"My kids said, 'Dad, you never showed us this!' And I'm, like, 'Yeah, I never showed you.' "
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