Could maturation of Vilardi, Perfetti take Jets to the next level?

Sean Reynolds looks at the top storylines in Winnipeg with training camps underway, including this new-look squad going with a more balanced approach, the rift between coach Rick Bowness and the players, and the Jets' upcoming free agents.

Earlier this week, Gabe Vilardi, whom the Winnipeg Jets acquired as part of the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade over the summer, opened training camp on the top line next to Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele.

Vilardi scored a career-high 23 goals last season despite receiving 15:36 of ice time per game, which ranked eighth among Los Angeles Kings forwards. He, and by extension the Jets, stand to benefit from increased usage. (Vilardi’s 1.33 goals per 60 at 5-on-5 were tied for 20th out of 503 forwards who played at least 100 minutes.)

“Some of (Vilardi’s) most successful times last year (were) on the wing,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff told reporters Wednesday. “I think he can ramp up his production there.”

Connor and Scheifele made life difficult for defenders when they were on the ice last season, out-chancing opponents 115-66 off the cycle at 5-on-5. That style of play suits Vilardi, whose 3.05 cycle chances per 60 were tied for 17th among qualified forwards. (Connor and Scheifele ranked eighth and tied for 28th, respectively.)

After an injury-plagued start to his NHL career, Vilardi, 24, finally experienced his long-awaited breakout. The Jets are hoping for the same from 21-year-old Cole Perfetti, who is replacing Dubois as the Jets’ second-line centre. Perfetti, who played the position prior to entering the NHL two seasons ago, has been practicing with Nikolaj Ehlers and Nino Niederreiter.

Limited to 51 games last season because of an upper-body injury, Perfetti was effective at pushing the puck up the ice, finishing 40th with 2.53 pass completions off the rush per 60 at 5-on-5. He should work well with the speedy Ehlers, one of the most dynamic attackers in the league. (Ehlers averaged 3.71 rush chances per 60 at 5-on-5 last season — tied for 11th among forwards.)

“The one thing that I really enjoy about playing centre … is being able to have both sides of the ice open,” Perfetti told reporters Thursday. “When you’re on the wing, you’re stuck on the left side. You can really only go to the middle of the ice or the right side of the ice. The wall’s there, so you’re stuck. (Whereas) when you get the puck through the middle of the ice, you have the left side, you’ve got the right side, you can come up the middle. (You have) way more (options) now, and you’re able to see the ice a lot more. That is one of (the) stronger parts of my game.”

Understandably, most of the attention in Winnipeg is on Scheifele and star goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, both of whom are entering the final year of their contracts after a summer of trade rumours. There are other Jets storylines to follow this season, though, including the maturation of Vilardi and Perfetti.  

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