If there's one aspect of the game that's most elusive, most difficult to break down, calculate and quantify, it's what's often termed as "hockey IQ."
It's that sixth-sense feel for the patterns that play out on the ice, for the currents that govern those moving through the game, and the ability to manipulate them to your own will. And it's only becoming a more fundamental aspect of the sport with each passing year, as the game continues to shift toward dynamic offensive creativity.
For Cole Perfetti, it's his bread and butter.
The Saginaw Spirit's star forward has made his name as one of junior hockey's most intelligent on-ice talents, his elite intellect rooting itself in both his on-ice play and his off-ice character. It's that mix that saw Perfetti finish as junior hockey's top academic performer while ranking as the third-highest scorer among all CHL skaters in 2019-20.
With the 2020 NHL Draft nearing, here's all you need to know about Perfetti's potential, and why there's a fair chance he'll be among the first names called on draft day:
Team: Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
Position: Left Wing
Hometown: Whitby, Ontario
Age: 18 (Jan 1, 2002)
Weight: 180 pounds
No one’s had a better look at Cole Perfetti over the past two years than his head coach in Saginaw, Chris Lazary. To say Lazary believes in his prized winger after seeing his impact in Saginaw would be a massive understatement -- the Spirit's bench boss doesn't simply see a successful jump to the pro leagues in Perfetti's future, he sees bona fide greatness.
“I think his ceiling's limitless. I think he could be one of the players out of this draft that goes on and plays 15 years, and has a lot of career accomplishments,” Lazary says. His vision of what Perfetti could be at his peak makes clear the scope of that first statement.
“To me, his player comparable is Nikita Kucherov,” says the coach, citing the Russian winger who, two seasons ago, posted the NHL's highest single-season point total of the past two decades. “Kucherov played in the CHL, he's not overly lightning-quick with his skating, but man, his playmaking, his creativeness, his ability to manipulate defenders, his change of direction, his deception. All those things make Kucherov one of the best players in the National Hockey League.
“And to me, when I watch Kucherov play, it's like watching Cole Perfetti play.”
Speed and size have been the main knocks on Perfetti’s potential to dominate the NHL as he has the OHL. Of course, a number of names dotted among the big leagues’ top scorers prove there’s plenty of opportunity to thrive without an over-abundance of either trait.
In Lazary’s view, the impact of Perfetti’s mind outweighs that of his body, and his abilities in the finer details of his skating make up for a lack of flat-out quickness.
“[It’s] his ability to process information at a high rate of speed,” he says. “People knock his skating, but I think his skating is actually, to me, a strength. ... Everyone wonders about his speed, but the minute he enters the offensive zone, to me it's not about being fast or having speed, it's about being deceptive and changing directions, being able to make plays through traffic, and those are where he excels the most.
“Yeah, he might not grab the puck in the D-zone and blow you away with his speed between the neutral [zone], but he's fast enough to survive in that level. And then when he gets in the O-zone, it's next level. And I think that's where he'll thrive.”
And the key to getting from where he is now to where he could be, perhaps even to an iteration of Tampa Bay’s No. 86, is the chance to suit up among those who can see the game like he does.
“If you're going to surround him with even better players, NHL-calibre players, he's going to thrive even more, because they'll be more on his kind of way of thinking.”
Student of the game
Perfetti’s reputation on the ice is well-established. But talk to those around him, and his maturity and character off the ice are just as sterling.
“He started a foundation -- I had no idea he started this foundation -- called Fetts' Friends,” Lazary recalls. “He goes and he raises money on his own through merchandise and different things and he takes that money and he donates it back to a hospital here in Saginaw that's essentially like Sick Kids in Toronto, that same kind of a hospital here in Saginaw. He takes time out of his day consistently to go down and visit the patients there -- he's such a caring human being.
“He's so unique, because those elite players a lot of time kind of walk around with a sense of entitlement, and walk around like somebody owes them something. But Cole is so humble, so kind, and always looking to do more for the person beside him.”
Perfetti’s also made his name as one of the CHL’s brainiest characters. While potting 111 points on the season — third-most among all CHL players, topped only by the OHL’s Marco Rossi and the QMJHL’s Alexis Lafreniere — Perfetti also earned the CHL’s Scholastic Player of the Year Award with an academic average of 93 per cent.
And make no mistake, that off-ice intelligence translates seamlessly to his on-ice prowess — Lazary has to look no further than his sessions breaking down film with the teenage phenom to see how.
“He’s the smartest hockey player that I've ever coached,” Lazary says. “I know when I sit and we go through video clips, he provides his insight -- he thinks about things that aren't even on my radar as a coach. So, he's just special that way.”
That ability to read the game better than his peers comes from his untamed love for it, says Lazary, and his willingness to take in as much information as he possibly can.
“He's a student of the game -- I don't think enough kids at our level actually go home and watch hockey. Perfetti does,” the coach says. “He'll come in and he'll talk about things that he was watching in the NHL or even OHL the night before. He'll pop in and [say], 'Hey Laz, did you see this, did you see that,' and we'll get a conversation going.
“I think when he watches the game, he’s studying habits of elite players, and he tries to implement those in his game. I don't think enough kids watch hockey in this day and age. And I think he does, and that separates him.”
Day 1 Wonder
Take a look back through the pre-CHL days of most premier junior talents and you’re in for a trip through some absurd stat lines. Cole Perfetti’s resumé is no different — before he was dominating the OHL to the tune of 111 points in 2019-20, the Whitby, Ont., native put up 125 points through just 64 games in minor midget for the Vaughn Kings. But even a half-decade before that, Perfetti was separating himself from the competition.
“I started in minor hockey, so back when Cole was nine or 10 at this tournament, we were playing in the final and we were playing against Cole Perfetti's team,” Lazary says. “That was my first Cole Perfetti experience -- like, he stood out then as an elite player.”
Six years after that tournament, Perfetti arrived in Saginaw, and Lazary saw the same spark he first noticed when Perfetti was outclassing that group of 10-year-olds.
“You always wonder -- you see those kids at that age, there's always a few that dominate. Not many sustain that, but he was one of the lucky ones, or special ones,” Lazary says. “My first viewing of him at our level was when he came to our development camp right after we drafted him. And you knew right away that, if we could have this player commit to our program, we're going to have the opportunity to change the face of our franchise and do something special that we've been trying to do for a long time here in Saginaw.”
The results suggest that hope panned out. Saginaw finished as division champs in both of Perfetti’s OHL campaigns — those finishes ranking as only the second and third time the club ever did so. They made it to Game 7 of the conference finals in Perfetti’s first playoff run with Saginaw, only to see this year’s attempt cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
No. 91 paced the club in goals and assists during both campaigns, Perfetti's jump from a dominant 37-goal, 74-point rookie year to an elite 100-plus-point sophomore season the result a ramped-up commitment in the gym, according to his coach.
“When he came in at 16, he wasn't really a guy that wanted to get into the gym or really understood the value of the gym. But after his first year, he went home and he dedicated himself to his off-ice [training],” Lazary says. “He came back way stronger, he shed a lot of that baby fat -- I just think his overall conditioning, his strength allowed him to dominate."
So, where does that leave Perfetti among his 2020 NHL Draft peers? Lazary’s hardly objective given his time with the young winger in Saginaw, but the coach stands firm in his belief in his star forward.
“I told this to multiple people -- I'll put money on it -- he's going to be one of the best players that come out of this draft, no doubt,” Lazary says. And anyone who feels otherwise, according to the coach, isn’t paying attention.
“I think [it’s] fear,” he says. “I think a lot of guys out there that are writing reports or ranking players look at him and he's not big, he doesn't have Martin St. Louis-type speed, so they look at him and they're like, 'Oh yeah, he's great in junior but he'll struggle in the NHL.' And I just think it's fear.
“He literally changed our franchise overnight. We've won 40-plus games on the back of Cole Perfetti. I mean, he has good players around him too, don't get me wrong, but I just think everywhere he's ever gone, he has proven to be successful, whether it was the U18s or Under-17s. … I think if you're being truly honest about the best players in the draft, he's 1-2-3 for me in that category.”