Jets prospect Cole Perfetti soaking in on-the-job training in AHL

Cole Perfetti (91), pictured above during the CHL top prospects game. (Peter Power/CP)

WINNIPEG - The significance of the moment was not lost on Cole Perfetti, even if he didn’t grasp the enormity to its full extent in the immediate aftermath.

To the untrained eye, it looks like a simple inter-change during a four-on-three power play, yet the subtleties located just below the surface is what makes the sequence involving Perfetti and fellow Winnipeg Jets prospect Ville Heinola so special.

Perfetti rolls off the right-wing boards to the point on the power play, while Heinola quickly accelerates to push the penalty killer back ever so slightly.

That split-second decision freezes the opponent and creates the small window of space that allows Perfetti to perfectly place the pass in Heinola’s wheelhouse for a blistering one-timer.

Not only did the marker represent the overtime winner for the Manitoba Moose on Monday night against the Laval Rocket, it was also the first power-play goal of the campaign for the Jets’ top affiliate.

There were the last two Jets first-round picks combining for the highlight-reel tally, taking a bow on centre stage.

Oh, and did we mention that both of the players responsible for the goal are 19 years old?

It didn’t take long for the replay of the game-winning goal to show up on social media, where it began to spread like wildfire.

Surely, this was being viewed through the lens of many observers as a sign of things to come.

“When I got to the hotel and saw some things on Twitter and got some text messages, it was pretty cool,” Perfetti said from Montreal, where the Moose are getting set for the third of four meetings in this series with the Rocket. “To be feeding Ville one-timers with the Jets would be pretty special. Maybe a little foreshadowing there, I don’t know.”

Since the Jets made Perfetti the 10th overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft in October, he’s shown a maturity beyond his years in his dealings with members of the media.

Not only is he polite, he’s insightful and genuinely enjoys talking about the game.

In a normal season, Perfetti would have probably snuck into a couple of exhibition games with the Jets, soaked in the experience of his first NHL training camp and made his way back to the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit.

But with the OHL not yet up and running, the opportunity to get some valuable on-the-job training with the Moose arrived and Perfetti is doing his part to ensure it’s a valuable step in his goal to become an NHLer.

He’s not exactly dipping his toe in the water either, it’s more like a full-on cannonball.

Early in Moose training camp, head coach Pascal Vincent approached Perfetti for a quick chat and the subject of what position he felt most comfortable at was broached.

“I told him that I’d played both for my entire life, but I prefer centre,” said Perfetti, who played primarily on the wing for Team Canada at the recent world juniors in Edmonton. “I feel like I can make more of an impact on the game, come into the middle of the ice and get more puck touches.”

Versatility is important, but locking in on one position gave Perfetti a bit of a leg up when it came to focusing on his adjustment to the professional game.

Hockey intelligence is a characteristic that comes to the forefront in any conversation about Perfetti.

It’s been on full display through his first six AHL games.

“We’ll be talking about his hockey sense every time that we talk about him,” Vincent said during a telephone conversation from Montreal. “Not only with the puck - because he has real good vision, and he can read plays before he gets the puck. He’s really good at having awareness of what is going on around him, so when he gets it, he knows what the next play should be, or should look like. But also defensively. Of course, there are quite a few things we need to work on with him - and everybody - but he understands pretty quick where he should be. It doesn’t always mean that he’s winning those battles, where it’s a one-on-one along the boards or it’s a race because physically, he’s so much younger than the players that he’s playing against. But he’s in the right place. And if he’s not, we tell him and the next time if he faces the same scenario, he will be in the right place.

“His ability to understand and then execute at a high speed is pretty fascinating to me. He’s a very bright man and when you talk to him, you can tell. Playing at the pro level can be intimidating, but it doesn’t seem like he’s nervous.”

Again, it’s important to remember that under normal circumstances, Perfetti wouldn’t even be eligible for full-time AHL duty until the 2022-23 season.

By that time (if not sooner), Perfetti is probably going to be knocking on the door of making the Jets.

Whether or not he sticks around after training camp in 2021 is a debate for another day, but what Perfetti is going through these days is certainly going to serve him well on that front.

Perfetti has been thrust into a prominent role, playing on what is a top-six line with Kristian Reichel and C.J. Suess and he’s being used in all situations.

“He’s on our power play, he’s taking D-zone faceoffs at key moments in the games,” said Vincent. “Five-on-six, six-on-five, four-on-three. We play him against top lines and against top D-pairings, we play him in all kinds of scenarios and we’re winning games. And he’s part of it. He’s interesting to work with. I really believe that you can be big, you can be fast, you can have all of the tools in the box, but if you don’t have the brain, (the tools) will only last so long or it will limit your future success. If you have the brain, you can do something. And he certainly has the brain.”

Perfetti’s ability to process information quickly is something he’s leaning on as he plays against many opponents with far more experience, not to mention a physical advantage that comes with age.

“We’ve done a lot of video work over Zoom and when you watch your game you can see what you’re doing, good and bad, and I think I’ve been doing a really good job of being in the right position,” said Perfetti, who has a goal and three points in six AHL games. “Some of these guys are 30-year-olds that have been in the league for 10 years and they’ve got a lot of weight and height on me, so I’m not going to win that puck battle every time. But I feel like I’ve been making good reads and making good plays.

“It’s been a challenge going into the corners with some of these big guys, but that’s what is helping me. To go up against guys this strong every day, it makes you a better player. It makes you more aware and it definitely makes you use your brain a lot more. It’s really been helping me.”

Perfetti also got a glimpse of the taxing nature of the schedule as the Moose played the Toronto Marlies four times over a five-day span last week.

By the time Friday’s game arrived, the gas tank was a bit low, but Perfetti found a way to persevere.

“With four games in five days, that’s hard in any league - even if it’s minor hockey. It’s taxing on the body,” said Perfetti. “All of the guys were feeling it. I had never had to go through that many games at this pace, but at the same time I felt like I almost had an advantage because people say you’ve got the young legs and you recover quicker.”

Perfetti isn’t sure how long it will be until the OHL comes to a decision on the season, but he’s planning to soak in every bit of this pro experience while it lasts.

“Not a lot of kids are getting this opportunity that normally we wouldn’t get. This is all a bonus for me,” said Perfetti, who turned 19 on Jan. 1. “I’m just trying to soak it in and use this to become not only a better hockey player, but a better person and more of an adult.

“Just being able to learn the pro lifestyle and experience traveling with the team, what the pro game is like and how to take care of your body. All of that stuff is going to help me so much in the long run. It’s kind of hard to explain how beneficial this is for me.”

The early returns are already showing up.

“It’s been a big adjustment,” said Perfetti. “Everything is that much faster and stronger, but it’s been great for my learning and my development so far. I can already tell how much of a better hockey player that I’ve become. It’s just going to keep progressing on that track, hopefully, and just keep going throughout the rest of the year.

“It’s really hard to score in this league, so the points aren’t coming as easily or what I’m used to. But I was kind of expecting that. You’ve really got to work and earn your (scoring) chances and points and stuff like that.”

Still, the highlights have been plentiful through the first six AHL games, including notching his first professional goal in his first game.

After the puck found the back of the net, Perfetti simply raised his stick in the air.

There was no boisterous celebration to accompany it, but that didn’t mean Perfetti wasn’t feeling a sense of jubilation on the inside.

“I love to score,” said Perfetti. “There have been some big moments where I’ve cellied hard a couple of times, but it’s definitely different without fans. It creates a different atmosphere and it just has a different buzz and when you score, it has a different sense of energy and a different reaction that I’ve noticed from everyone in this league so far. (Bobby) Lynch took it to the net and it came out on a platter for me, so I put it into the empty net.

“I do celebrate sometimes when it’s a big moment or a nice goal or whatever, but for the most part, I put my hands up in the air. Nothing too crazy. There are a couple of celebrations of mine out there where I go a little nuts, but for the most part, just calm and collected is how I try and do it.”

As calm as he remained, Perfetti was happy to get that first goal under his belt, so he didn’t get to the point of wondering when it might come.

“There’s a lot of anticipation to score your first goal and you want to do it so bad,” said Perfetti. “You’re waiting for that moment and if you don’t score in the first couple of games, maybe you start gripping your stick a little bit. To get the first one out of the way, nice and early in the first period, was good for my confidence. Kind of take the pressure off, so you just play relaxed and go out and do your thing.”

Much like the connection he made with Heinola, Perfetti making a habit of finding the back of the net and setting up his teammates is something he’s hoping becomes a regular occurrence, both in the present and definitely into the future.

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