Jets' Perfetti quickly transforming from top prospect to top-six contributor

Winnipeg Jets forward Cole Perfetti talks about his excitement to play alongside teammates Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois once again and what it's been like to learn from them.

WINNIPEG -- One minute, you’re talking about sharing the ice for the first time with one of your childhood heroes.

The next? Well, you’re back at the microphone explaining what it was like to find the back of the net for your first NHL goal.

Welcome to the world of Cole Perfetti, whose transformation from top prospect to top-six contributor with the Winnipeg Jets is happening right before our eyes.

Spoiler alert: It’s happening at an accelerated pace.

Although Perfetti has made a habit of relishing the moments and expressing his gratitude for his current lot in life, this is no longer just a dream for the 10th overall pick of the 2020 NHL Draft.

The reality might even be better than the original vision.

At the very least, Perfetti’s recent play is certainly helping him speed up the timeline in the goal to become an NHL regular.

History will show that Perfetti buried a pass from Pierre-Luc Dubois on a 2-on-1 rush at 2:20 of the first period against the Washington Capitals.

Seeing the red light go on, Perfetti’s momentum brought him toward the glass on the end boards and he smashed it triumphantly with both gloves, an expressive show of enthusiasm you couldn’t script, no matter how many times you’ve visualized the moment in your head.

“It was crazy. Like you said, you dream of that, scoring your first goal in the NHL,” Perfetti told reporters after the Jets fell 4-3 in overtime to the Capitals to open a four-game road trip. “I don’t actually know where I put it in the net. I kind of blanked and then it was all just a whirlwind.

“I came back to the bench and actually looked at (Dubois) and I said, ‘I can’t believe I just scored in the NHL.’ It was just kind of a surreal moment and it kind of hit me when I came to the bench. It was pretty special.”

Perfetti’s goal came on the same night Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scored his 27th of the season to regain the lead in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy as he chases Wayne Gretzky for the all-time record for goals.

“Yeah, it’s obviously pretty crazy. I think in his rookie year, I was three or four years old,” Perfetti said after the morning skate. “It’s kind of funny to think about. I have watched him my whole life and to now play against him is pretty special.

“You always want to be on the same ice with a guy like that. Just to see what he’s done in his career and what he is accomplishing. It’s history every night with him.”

A few hours later, there was Perfetti supplying a historical moment of his own.

Unlike many young players suiting up in just their fifth NHL game, Perfetti showed great patience in opening up to receive the pass from Dubois, and then ensured that he rifled home the shot, rather than panic and put it into the pads of Vitek Vanacek or miss the net entirely.

“Yeah, I mean, after I missed that chance in Detroit to get him his first point, I told him that I owed him one,” said Dubois. “It was a nice play by him to find that open space, to not drive too far and to find a lane for me. I mean, it wasn’t an open net. He had to beat the goalie with a nice shot. He’s playing really well right now. It’s his first goal, but the way he’s playing, the way he’s improving, game by game and practice by practice, hopefully we can keep this going.”

Due to a variety of factors ranging from injury to COVID-19, Perfetti found himself back in the Jets’ lineup earlier this month – a nice carrot for the skilled forward after his dream of pursuing a gold medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship was taken away from him by this latest wave of the pandemic.

With a number of forwards absent, Perfetti has worked his way into an expanded role, jumping onto the Jets’ top trio with Kyle Connor and Dubois.

Yes, the sample size is small but one thing is undeniable – Perfetti is doing his part and right now the line is clicking.

Finding the right opportunity to showcase your talent can occasionally be a challenge for a guy who turned 20 on Jan. 1, but Perfetti’s on-the-job training is going extremely well.

He’s found chemistry with Dubois and Connor, and he’s proven to be a quick study, thanks in large part to his hockey intelligence.

The scoring chances for himself and his linemates were plentiful on Tuesday, and cameras caught Perfetti looking at the iPad on the bench after one of those opportunities was thwarted by Vanacek during the second period.

Perfetti is always looking for ways to improve, but he’s also trusting his instincts and hasn’t been overwhelmed by being thrust into a spot that some could find intimidating or nerve-racking.

With the potential for the Jets to get captain Blake Wheeler (out with a knee injury since Dec. 10), Paul Stastny (who missed the past three games, one due to injury and two more while dealing with COVID-19) and Evgeny Svechnikov back before the end of the week, the ongoing quest for Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry to find optimal line combinations will be put to the test.

With Lowry reiterating almost daily that guys who deserve to play are going to be in the lineup, Perfetti is doing a nice job of strengthening his case to stick around.

That’s not to say Perfetti has secured a permanent job in the top six or that his lineup spot is safe, but you can’t make the argument that he’s not helping the Jets.

As the Jets continue this critical four-game road trip on Thursday against the Nashville Predators, they will be without winger Nikolaj Ehlers, who left Tuesday’s game after he was involved in a knee-on-knee collision with Capitals defenceman Dmitry Orlov.

Lowry remained calm when asked about the play in question, but it was clear he was frustrated that a penalty – possibly a major – was not called by the officials.

“I’m disappointed. When you lose a player, you’re disappointed,” said Lowry. “The four of them didn’t see it the same way we saw it. If they would have seen it the same way I saw it, it would probably have been more than a minor penalty. I lose a world-class player and, like I said, it’s a fast game and I have the luxury again of watching and rewinding it and watching it in slow motion. You’re disappointed as a coach. I lose a player and I will probably lose him for more than one game.”

The Jets have some recent history when it comes to knee-on-knee collisions, as Neal Pionk received a two-game suspension for kneeing Rasmus Sandin of the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game back on Dec. 5.

Given the aftermath of that infraction, the NHL Department of Player Safety is scheduled to take a long look at the play on Wednesday, and Orlov could be on the receiving end of supplemental discipline.

No matter what happens on that front, the Jets are going to be without one of their best forwards – a zone entry machine who is a master at drawing penalties and is tied for third in team scoring, with 25 points in 34 games.

He’s not the type of player who is easy to replace given his game-breaking ability, but Ehlers’ absence means that Perfetti is virtually guaranteed to get a longer runway in his current role, which is something he’s earned.

“When that line plays the way that it does, it makes decisions become a little tougher to make,” said Lowry. “We can talk about Cole, but we have to be mindful of who he’s playing with. He’s playing with a couple of world-class players. Kyle Connor is an all-star. (Dubois) is a big man, he’s a horse in a game. Cole complements those guys, and what we want to do is continue to expect him to get better at the game that he plays.”

That’s the thing about Perfetti, he’s made a habit of being a fast learner at every level and his ability to adapt to the NHL game has been impressive to watch so far.

To this point, he’s shown no signs of a player who is ready to plateau.

More performances like this one are required, but Perfetti seems poised to make good on the opportunity that has been presented to him, even if it’s come sooner than most people expected.

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