Perfetti ready to take on top-six role with Jets Highly touted prospect welcomes pressure, opportunity
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It was fitting that Cole Perfetti was sitting outside a passport office Thursday afternoon when he picked up the phone. After all, if the Winnipeg Jets are going anywhere this coming season, their top prospect is being counted on to help lead the way.
Pressure? You bet. Fair or not, there’s going to be plenty of it placed on the broad shoulders of the 20-year-old Perfetti, who will still qualify as an NHL rookie. There’s also an air of excitement surrounding the 10th-overall pick from 2020, now fully recovered from a pair of injuries that sidelined a promising big-league debut last year.
“It’s definitely a huge opportunity and I’m trying not to overthink it,” Perfetti told the Free Press in a chat from his hometown of Whitby, Ont. “I definitely look at the roster and see that there’s openings, there’s needs, there’s jobs that need to be filled and roles that need to be taken.”
No question the former Ontario Hockey League star with the Saginaw Spirit — he had 185 points in just 124 junior games — is one of the main reasons for Jets fans to be hopeful after a disappointing year in which they missed the playoffs, followed by an underwhelming summer that has seen few changes made to the roster.
“I definitely have goals in mind for this season in my head and that I think I can achieve,” said Perfetti. “If I play my game and do what I know I can do, I can achieve those goals.”
Perfetti was a surprise addition to the opening-night lineup last October, making his debut at the Honda Center in Anaheim as he played his first of 18 NHL games. There will be no shock or awe when he’s on the roster to start the 2022-23 campaign. Forwards Andrew Copp, Paul Stastny, Riley Nash, Evgeny Svechnikov, Kristian Vesalainen, Adam Brooks, Zach Sanford, Austin Poganski and CJ Suess all suited up for the Jets last year and have since moved on.
Perfetti should slide immediately into a top-six role, joining Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler in that mix. That will leave the likes of Adam Lowry, Mason Appleton, Jansen Harkins, Morgan Barron, Dominic Toninato and David Gustafsson to fill out the bottom-six, with competition from depth players such as Kristian Reichel, Jeff Malott, Mikey Eyssimont, Kevin Stenlund, Alex Limoges and Saku Maenalanen.
“I just need to play my game, play as hard as I can and do what I can do and control what I can control and everything will take care of itself.” – Cole Perfetti
“Obviously, you want to play as high up in the lineup, as much as you can. So, I’m going to come into camp and know what I need to do,” said Perfetti, who had two goals and five assists in his first stint with the Jets, along with 15 points (6G, 9A) in 17 games with the Manitoba Moose.
“I just need to play my game, play as hard as I can and do what I can do and control what I can control and everything will take care of itself.”
To that extent, Perfetti has had a couple of phone conversations with new head coach Rick Bowness.
“He seems like a great guy and very excited to meet him. Everyone just says how good of a human being he is and how nice he is and how dedicated to the game, so that’s all you can really ask for as a coach,” he said. “It’s exciting to kind of have that fresh start with everyone. I’m just hoping to make a good first impression and get to work with them.”
Perfetti, a natural centre, is open to continuing to play on the wing if that’s what it takes. With Scheifele and Dubois entrenched up the middle on the top two lines, that seems like a given.
“I’m going to play whatever position the team needs me to play. I feel comfortable on both sides. Whatever I can do to help the team,” he said.
Perfetti looked to have found a nice home on the right side last season with Dubois and Connor just prior to getting hurt after taking a big hit from Seattle Kraken defenceman Jamie Oleksiak in a game last February. That messed up his shoulder, which was followed by aggravating a nagging back ailment during his rehab.
“(The back) was just a lingering thing that had been going on for quite a while and I didn’t think it was a kind of a big deal and played through it. It was tough but a little bit of a blessing in disguise,” he said. “Now, looking back, I would have kept playing through it and who knows where we would have been, so glad we found that when we did. It was tough at the time, to miss all those games and all that development.
“It was a long process of rehab and getting back to healthy, but today I feel really, really good and heading into camp the body feels great. The mind feels great. So, yeah, I feel like I’m in a really good spot right now.”
Scheifele, playing last week in the Manitoba Open golf tournament on a sponsor’s exemption, raved about Perfetti’s conditioning. The two had been working out together earlier this summer in Michigan, along with Connor, Copp (who has signed with his hometown Detroit Red Wings) and Connor Hellebuyck, among others.
“It was a long process of rehab and getting back to healthy, but today I feel really, really good and heading into camp the body feels great. The mind feels great.” – Cole Perfetti
Perfetti played 32 AHL games during the 2020 COVID campaign, along with seven more for the Canadian world junior squad, and then just 35 total games last year. Safe to say he’s salivating at the prospect of playing meaningful hockey.
“I’ve had these conversations with my dad. Growing up, I’m used to playing between spring hockey, summer and winter, over 100 games a year. To play such a little amount the last two years has been hard,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s been through a pandemic. It’s been through COVID and an injury. But I definitely feel like I got lots left in the tank. I’m eager to get back to the games and excited to take on a full schedule this year get back to what I love doing.”
Perfetti could have gotten a few high-stakes tilts under his belt earlier this month, as he was eligible to play one final time for Canada at the re-scheduled world junior championship in Alberta. But the Jets wanted him to focus on his summer training, so he was left to be a spectator and cheerleader.
Watching several of his junior-aged friends capture gold in a thrilling overtime win over Finland brought mixed emotions.
“Health is the No.1 concern and I didn’t want to rush into games. But at the same time, you always want to play for your country,” he said. “It was tough, but ultimately, at the end of the day, I think the Jets want me ready for September and they want me to be healthy. And that was the main focus.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.