Cole Perfetti walked into a dressing room at Bell MTS Iceplex Thursday morning, expecting to find it empty save for a computer that would record his usual post-skate Zoom call. Instead, the 19-year-old top forward prospect of the Winnipeg Jets was greeted by a throng of local scribes — the first face-to-face media session involving the hockey club in 18 months due to relaxed COVID-19 protocols.
Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
"Once I showed up, got a little caught off guard with how many people were here," Perfetti, the 10th-overall pick of the 2020 draft, said with a laugh. "I feel like I can deliver a message and understand you guys a little bit better. I’m excited to have everyone back in the rink and it’s a good sign that we’re getting back to normal life. That’s awesome."
There will be a number of new experiences in the coming days for Perfetti, who is looking to send a different kind of message to coaches and management. This is his first-ever pro minicamp with the Jets, a five-day affair in which 21 young skaters are put through their paces by coach Paul Maurice and his staff. That will lead into the first-ever training camp with the team starting next Thursday, as Perfetti missed the abbreviated one last January while he was playing for Canada at the World Juniors. And, no doubt, he’ll get his first taste of NHL exhibition action when the six-game slate kicks off Oct. 26.
Could his regular-season debut be just around the corner?
"Honestly, I don’t really know. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens," said Perfetti, who had nine goals and 17 assists in 32 games with the Manitoba Moose last year. Normally, the AHL is not an option for junior-eligible players, but the door opened when the Ontario Hockey League was shuttered due to COVID-19.
"I’m going to use these next two weeks, three weeks, whatever it is, to show what I can do and be the best that I can be," said Perfetti. "My goal is to earn a spot with the Jets and, come opening day, I want to be wearing the jersey playing for the team. That’s my goal, that’s the mindset right now. Everything is going to happen for a reason, so whatever happens to me, whatever the plan is, I’m just going to work my hardest and do whatever I can to reach my goal of playing for the Jets this year."
Maurice said these next few days are an important step to assess the current depth of the organization’s talent pool and see how everyone’s summer went in terms of training. This has essentially replaced what used to be summer development camp, typically held in early July right after the annual draft. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into that the past two years.
"What we’re really trying to do here is get them ready, so in four days from now, they can get some of those nerves out," said Maurice.
"We’re going to get them to touch the puck as much as they can. Those defencemen had the puck today more than they will in the next two weeks. The forwards too. As we get closer, we’ll run closer to practices. Then we’ll run a bunch of the drills in the last two days that you’ll see first day of camp. Some of it is to lower the anxiety so we can see what they can do. They’ll get lots of looks at systems and things like that. If they’ve worked hard, and we think they have, and they’ve come to camp in shape — I’m not taking these four days to grind the hell out of them just to prove how tough the NHL is. That’ll happen next week."
Defenceman Dylan Samberg is coming off his first pro season following a successful college career, scoring a goal and adding six assists in 32 games with the Moose. Although he attended training camp last January, there were no exhibition games on the docket to get his feet wet at the highest level.
"I was more consistent and I got a lot better as the year went on," said Samberg, who was picked in the second round of the 2017 draft. "I felt more confident out there, especially with skating and getting back for pucks. I was able to join up in the rush a lot more, especially toward the end of the year. I felt more confident in that."
Samberg’s path to the big club got a bit more difficult this summer when the Jets acquired both Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon in trades. He knows Schmidt well — the fellow Minnesotan, who is eight years his senior, was once his assigned counsellor at an under-15 hockey camp in St. Cloud.
Although that might mean another year on the farm, at least to start, Samberg knows that opening some eyes now can lead to opportunities down the road, as Logan Stanley proved this past year when he basically forced his way on to the blue line earlier than expected.
"You try and focus on your own game and make sure you’re bringing it every single day. You just put that to the side and work on yourself," he said. "I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited to get back here, get back to camp, and kind of have a normal year."
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.