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By Nick Nollenberger (@NIckNollen)
Jeffrey Viel is what you call a throwback. Willing to do whatever it takes to win, the 21-year-old is filling a familiar role in his first year of pro hockey.
Already revered by his coaches, teammates and fans for his selfless approach and tremendous toughness, Viel is a born leader. This is a trait that he has displayed over the last two years as the captain of his junior club the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
After going undrafted three years ago, the San Jose Barracuda signed the power forward in the midst of a dominant playoff run last spring that culminated in a Memorial Cup Championship.
During that stretch, Viel earned QMJHL playoff MVP honors (Guy Lafleaur Trophy) after finishing fourth in points (23), second in goals (14) and first in penalty minutes (34).
“To find a player like him, that’s tough and grindy, and hard to play against isn’t easy,” said Barracuda Head Coach Roy Sommer. “They’re hard to find nowadays. Hockey’s always going to have intimidation in it, so you’ve got to have at least one or two of those type of players”
It is often thought in hockey that players who fight frequently lack the skill to fill any other role. That stereotype couldn’t be more off for Viel who ranks fifth on the Barracuda in goals scored (6) while also leading all AHL first year players in fighting majors (5) and penalty minutes (55).
“The biggest thing about Jeff is that he can play,” said Sommer. “Aside from defending his teammates, he can score, he kills penalties… so we kind of use him in all situations.”
Known as Porkchop in the locker room for sturdy six-foot, 195-pound frame, Viel has had at least a two-inch height disadvantage in every fight he’s had this season, including his most recent tilt against Ontario’s six-foot-five, 239-pound Jamie Devane.
“It’s part of his DNA to play the way he does,” said Sharks legend Mike Ricci who is now a Development Coach for the organization. “That type of game translates to the NHL, when he’s scoring goals in front of the net, he can score those in the NHL… he’s a great teammate and wants to win. He’s got all the tools.”
The beauty of Viel’s transition to the pro level is the fact that nothing has changed. What made him successful in the QMJHL is the same recipe he’s using with the Barracuda.
“I just came here wanting to play my game. We have a really skilled team and in order to have balance someone’s got to play with grit and toughness and I take pride in that role,” said Viel. “We have great leadership group here led by John McCarthy and Jake Middleton, so I’m just trying to soak it all in while leading by example.”
“We don’t have a lot of guys in our organization like him,” said Sommer. “That’s how valuable he is. If something happens out there, he sees it and he’ll go right after it and teams know that can’t get away with it.