WINNIPEG — One wouldn’t blame Cole Perfetti if he looked around and privately muttered something to the effect of, "What in the world am I doing here?"
But that’s not how the Winnipeg Jets forward prospect rolls.
As a collection of Jets prospects, draft picks and tryout candidates are preparing to head to Penticton, B.C., for the 2022 Young Stars Classic, Perfetti stands out for a number of reasons — most notably being the only one on the roster with NHL experience.
The Jets will face the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and host Vancouver Canucks over the course of the next five days in what will serve as an appetizer for those advancing to main camp next week.
Quite frankly, Perfetti is the only guy among the 13 forwards, eight defencemen and three goalies with a legitimate shot at cracking the NHL roster next month.
Not only is Perfetti a virtual lock to make the Jets this fall, but all signs also point to him playing a prominent role as someone who should be relied on to play on one of the top two lines and see time on the power play, given his skillset and ability to process the game at an extremely high level.
Perfetti made the Jets' opening-day roster last fall and was in the lineup for Game 1 against the Anaheim Ducks, partly because Mark Scheifele was forced to serve the final game of his four-game suspension and also because he opened up enough eyes on the coaching staff during the exhibition season to earn a longer look.
The Whitby, Ont., product finished with two goals and seven points in 18 NHL games and saw his role enhanced considerably during his second stint with the Jets, moving his average ice time just north of 14 minutes per game when all was said and done.
So why isn’t Perfetti staying back in Winnipeg and skating with the veterans who are already in town preparing for the main camp?
That’s an easy answer, especially when you remember Perfetti was limited to a combined 35 games between the NHL and the minors last season — the last one coming on Feb. 17, when he sustained a shoulder injury after a bone-jarring check from Jamie Oleksiak of the Seattle Kraken.
The lengthy recovery period — which included dealing with a lingering back issue — meant Perfetti was more than happy to take on a leadership role at the prospects tournament after skipping the world junior hockey championship last month in Edmonton, as he kept his focus on getting back to full speed for the coming season.
“It might take a couple shifts here and there to get up with the speed,” Perfetti told reporters on Wednesday. “I haven’t played a game since February, so that’s obviously going to be a little bit of an adjustment. But I’m really excited. As a hockey player, you really want to play games. You’re done with practising, done with working out. I just want to play hockey. That part I’m really excited about and can’t wait.
“I felt pretty comfortable where I was at the end of last season before the injury. So I’m sure that I’ll come in with that confidence and build off what I had last year."
There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the debate about whether Perfetti should start the season on the wing with Mark Scheifele or Pierre-Luc Dubois takes centre stage.
For now, Perfetti will be skating alongside fellow first-rounders Chaz Lucius (2021) and Brad Lambert (2022) and looking to set the tone by establishing good habits.
"Yeah, it’s nice to kind of be one of the guys that have played a handful of games there, to be in that group," Perfetti said. "Hopefully, I can go out there, play hard and just have fun. Just excited to play hockey. I want to play hockey games. That’s what I’m most looking forward to. I’m excited to play a meaningful game and have something on the line for it."
Manitoba Moose head coach Mark Morrison is happy to have someone like Perfetti that he can lean on during the coming days.
"The decision for him to play is an excellent decision,” Morrison, who will run the bench for this event, told reporters on Wednesday. “If you talk to him, he really wants to get out there and wants to get his timing down because he hasn't been on the ice in a game situation for a while. It's important for him."
That’s one of the things that stands out about Perfetti since the day he was drafted by the Jets.
He’s embraced each of every situation put in front of him and attacked it with a smile on his face — whether it was adapting to the pro game with the Moose as an 18-year-old when most of his Ontario Hockey League counterparts lost an entire season or making the jump to the NHL game last season on his off wing and looking comfortable with Dubois and 47-goal scorer Kyle Connor.
Perfetti has been quick to find the proper balance of knowing he has plenty to learn and improve upon while carrying himself with a quiet confidence in his ability to meet the next task.
So, when it comes to this series of tune-up games, you can expect Perfetti to once again stand out for all the right reasons.