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Wild's Veilleux checks NHL's strongest forwards

by John McGourty
Raise your hand if you know who Stephane Veilleux is and you can describe his skill set.

Give up? He's the third-line checking left winger for the Minnesota Wild and there's no one else that coach Jacques Lemaire would prefer smothering Calgary's Jarome Iginla or Todd Bertuzzi, Colorado's Milan Hejduk, Edmonton's Ales Hemsky, and the other productive right wingers outside the Northwest Division.

He's also a big reason the Wild still have a toehold in the race for a Western Conference Stanley Cup Playoff berth as they take on the Detroit Red Wings in the NBC Game of the Week Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET). Veilleux had 6 goals and 7 points in March, bringing his season totals to 13 goals and 8 assists in 76 games.

The NHL is the apex of hockey and every player was a star in previous leagues, be it Ontario, Quebec, Western Canada, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic or the U.S.

In his second season in juniors, 2000-01, Veilleux was the sixth-leading scorer in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 48 goals and 115 points. He helped his linemate, left winger Simon Gamache, to a league-leading 74-goal, 184-point season and his center, Brandon Reid, to a fourth-place finish with 45 goals and 126 points. His Val D'Or Foreurs won the league's West Division in the regular season and advanced to the Memorial Cup in Regina.

"At that time, I was playing a lot of offense," Veilleux said. "That was a good year for us. We lost in the Memorial Cup final in Regina, 6-5 in overtime, to Red Deer. Brent Sutter was coaching them then. It was a lot of fun. We were really good."

Veilleux, 26, was converted into a defensive forward by current San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan when he joined the Houston Aeros, the Wild's AHL affiliate.

"Todd is a good coach. First of all, he is a really good man," Veilleux said. "A good guy away from the rink. The way he was explaining his system and the way he treated the guys, a lot of the guys respected him as a person. That was the most important thing.

"I started playing more on penalty kills. I got some time on power plays. I was playing then more on both sides of the ice. The defensive game brought me to the Wild and helped me get established in the NHL. Playing in Houston, I gained a lot of confidence."

Due to McLellan's skills and the player's faith in him, Veilleux was able, after one season and 39 games into another, to make the jump to the NHL. He's been in the NHL ever since, except for the lockout season when he returned to the Aeros. Last season, he scored 11 goals 7 assists. He had 7 goals and 11 assists the season before.

So, why are we talking about an 18-point-a-year player, especially one that is minus-46 in six NHL seasons? Give those assignments to another player and they might go minus-46 for the season. Veilleux, a rugged but gentlemanly player, has learned over the years to keep his penalty minutes down while greatly improving his penalty-killing skills. As a result, he's third among Wild forwards in averaging 18:33 minutes per game. Lemaire trusts him.

"He works hard every night, every night," Lemaire said. "He wants to win and he knows what we want him to do to be successful. He plays close attention to his coaches. He has been a valuable member of this team for many years."

Iginla agrees.

"Playing against him, he consistently works hard, consistently competes. You play against him, you know what to expect," Iginla said. "There's not up and down days with him. ... He just competes, plays hard against you, hits you. He's honest, he's not a dirty player, he just plays hard. That's Minnesota, that's what they bring, which is a huge plus. It's consistent. They're ready to go and he's ready to go and ready to compete."

Veilleux struggled along with the rest of the team in midseason, leading to his current minus-17 rating. He's playing better now, according to Lemaire.

"He started to struggle and question himself, getting a little less ice time, play a little less in the critical situations," Lemaire told the Pioneer Press's John Shipley. "And then he started to feel better and got back to his good ice time, and the last 10 games he's been our top (goal) scorer."

The Wild enter every season determined to be the best defensive team in the NHL and they've been successful. They're third with a 2.42 goals-against average this year. They were ninth with a 2.56 GAA last year when they won the Northwest Division, and they led the NHL two years ago with a 2.24 GAA. They are second this season with 87.6 percent effectiveness in penalty killing.
"(Stephane Veilleux) works hard every night, every night. He wants to win and he knows what we want him to do to be successful. He plays close attention to his coaches. He has been a valuable member of this team for many years." -- Wild coach Jacques Lemaire
"Penalty killing has always been an important part of the system since we started. That and being a disciplined team," Veilleux said. "We need to be good defensively and show that we are playing as a team and following a system. Power plays are really important in this league and not taking penalties can only help you.

"We have been practicing hard on penalty kills. ... We've been getting a lot of help from the defensemen and some key saves at the right time. We've been doing well on the penalty kill for years. It's about having a "good stick" and good positioning. Jacques is a big teacher. Positioning is the key and the coaching staff does a good job."

Veilleux grew up in St. Georges de Beauce, Quebec, not far from the Maine border, and worked briefly as a lumberjack. That helps explain his core-body strength. His coach is 37 years older and was a hero to his father's generation when he starred for the Montreal Canadiens. He was asked what his father said when he learned his son would play for Lemaire.

"A good man and a good coach. He gives young guys a chance and he knows hockey. They told me he had a good system," Veilleux said.

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