WINNIPEG — This congratulatory tap on the shin pads — and the encouraging words that accompanied it — were something Cole Perfetti had visualized on countless occasions.
But when that moment finally came to fruition — and Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice told the 10th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft that he should call his parents because he would be in the lineup to make his debut on Wednesday in the season opener against the Anaheim Ducks, Perfetti couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear.
There was a little extra spring in his step as he completed his work after the formal part of practice had come to a close. By the time Perfetti had arrived inside the Matt Frost Memorial Media Centre, you got the sense that this exhilarating news had already started to sink in.
Following an emotional chat that nearly brought his dad to tears — and a text message to his mom after he was unable to connect with her by phone — Perfetti shared some thoughts with reporters about what this magical moment means to him and the many people who helped him reach this goal.
Several weeks ago, Perfetti wasn’t afraid to publicly declare his intention was to land a spot on the Jets’ opening day roster.
This wasn’t a sentiment that came from overconfidence or entitlement, but more of a matter of aiming high and doing whatever he could to succeed. Seeing it to believe it, if you will. Perfetti knew it was an uphill battle, given his age and limited professional experience.
Rather than waste time worrying about the obstacles and impediments, Perfetti played the role of a sponge, keeping his eyes and ears wide open while he maintained his focus on the task at hand. At every turn of the way, there was Perfetti looking wise beyond his years, leaning on the impressive combination of hockey intelligence and talent.
Whether it was playing his natural position of centre or moving over to the wing on his off side, Perfetti just kept making plays and opening eyes. On one shift, it was making a deft pass to a linemate and on another, there was Perfetti hustling to catch an opponent on a back check, preventing a scoring chance in the process.
So with Mark Scheifele out of the opening-night lineup to serve the final game of his suspension, there was an additional spot that needed to be filled and Perfetti kept doing things to remain under consideration.
After carefully surveying his options for the third line right-winger job — as veteran Paul Stastny moves up to centre the top line with captain Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor — Maurice ultimately decided to give Perfetti a shot.
Whether this is simply a one-off reward for a job well done or an extended look, that can be determined down the road. For the time being, Perfetti finds himself on a line with Adam Lowry and Jansen Harkins and he plans to bask in the afterglow, while clearly recognizing this is nothing more or less than the next step in the journey.
That’s not to minimize the achievement — quite the opposite actually. But the fact that in a moment as highly-anticipated as this one, Perfetti captured the moment with equal parts of enthusiasm and perspective.
“It’s only a start,” Perfetti said. “There’s a long season ahead, so to make it on Day 1, it’s pretty cool. It’s a dream come true and something I worked for all summer, I kind of focused on (Wednesday) night as a goal of mine. To be able to achieve that, it’s pretty special and it makes me feel pretty good. Just looking forward to it and excited for my first NHL road trip.”
As the conversation continued, Perfetti confessed he wasn’t sure his NHL debut was going to come this soon despite feeling he was knocking on the door.
“I mean, last year was such a big year for me and I knew that I was taking major strides forward and getting a lot better. I didn’t anticipate this,” said Perfetti, who suited up in 32 games in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose last season while also competing for Canada at both the world junior and men’s world championship. “Obviously I wanted it so bad but it’s crazy to think about. I think I’ve played really (well) so far and showed that I can play at this level. Like I said, there is lots to learn.
“I’m only a 19-year-old kid, I’m just excited to learn from these guys on this team. However long I can go along for the ride, I’m just looking forward to it and (will) soak it all up and learn from everyone.”
Earlier in training camp, Lowry was asked for a scouting report on Perfetti and he compared him to a skilled Edmonton Oilers forward who was chosen first overall in 2011.
“You know, the way he moves, he reminds me of Ryan-Nugent Hopkins,” Lowry said. “I don't know if that's because he's sort of bent over, kind of long. But he moves the puck extremely well. He's got high-end skill. He's got a high-end IQ. He's going to be a great player for us and we're really excited to see the potential and for him to unlock it.
"He's one of those players that has elite puck skills. He's got elite vision and elite offensive instincts. He's going to be another weapon for us.”
Perfetti has the long-range potential to be an offensive weapon in the top-six and someone who can eventually contribute to the power play, thanks to his vision and quick release.
He’s also smart enough and dependable enough to receive double-digit minutes in his first NHL game. And don’t forget the versatility to play any of the three forward spots. That’s why this opportunity is coming tonight instead of several weeks or months from now.
“You think you see something that you might like and it takes a while. The player at the start of training camp is a different player by the end of training camp, so you’ve got to wait to see,” said Maurice, noting he had a pretty good idea last week that things were moving in this direction. “Is this guy getting stronger? Has he fallen off? Is there some chemistry over here? Does the rest of the group look like this? That’s kind of a triage of your normal NHL day — who’s hurt, who’s not, who’s available, who are we playing against — all those kinds of things.
“As the games got more sorted and he played with different players, it looked — easier is not the right word — but he could make plays under pressure, and he may end up being one of those players that can make more plays (in the NHL) early on. He’s got a whole bunch he’s got to learn and I’m not saying this is for the whole year. But for opening night with (Scheifele) out, there’s a certain skill level that you want to have in your lineup, and I thought he had a good camp.”
Whether this is a carrot to give the player a taste of the NHL or simply a sign of things to come is up to Perfetti to determine with his play. What you can be certain of is that he’s never looked forward to a solo lap as much as the one he’ll complete during the pre-game warmup on Wednesday as he takes the next strides in his quest to become an NHL regular.