Top 5 Jets prospects: Cole Perfetti could end up being the crown jewel

Winnipeg Jets center Cole Perfetti, left, controls the puck in front of Anaheim Ducks center Benoit-Olivier Groulx during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Anaheim, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Alex Gallardo/AP)

WINNIPEG – The next wave of Winnipeg Jets prospects represents a combo platter varying from knocking on the door to likely being well worth the wait.

Although the current roster is still filled with draft picks ranging from can’t miss first-rounders to mid-to-late round value picks, there is plenty for Jets Nation to be excited about as it relates to the prospect pipeline.

Four of those players will be on display during the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship, including 2020 first-rounder Cole Perfetti, who is back representing Canada and wearing an A as an alternate captain.

Perfetti figures to be one of the offensive drivers for Canada during the upcoming weeks and he’s got some unfinished business to take care of after taking home a silver medal from last year’s event.

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“Obviously, there is a lot of redemption from last year,” Perfetti said after he was chosen to attend Canada’s camp last month. “Still have that feeling in my gut of losing in the gold (medal game) to the U.S. There’s a lot I want to accomplish this year, and coming back and winning a gold medal is the most important part of that, obviously. Any time you can wear the Maple Leaf and play world juniors, on home ice, everything about this tournament this year is extra special.

“Being one of the few returning guys from last year, that’s a goal of mine, to be a leader. But the bigger thing is just to get that gold. Came up short last year, but I’ve had my mindset on that since that day we lost last year.”

By suiting up for the Manitoba Moose of the AHL when the OHL was shut down by the pandemic, Perfetti was able to accelerate his development at a time when many of his peer group endured a bit of a stall.

Not only did he get to start his professional journey almost two years early, he also had the experience of suiting up for Canada at the 2021 world junior and the 2021 men’s World Hockey Championship (where he brought home a gold medal).

Already this season, Perfetti realized another dream by playing his first two NHL games for the Jets, he’s played a key role with the Moose instead of having to return to the junior ranks and now he’ll get a second opportunity to play in the world junior.

“My game is at a much better place than it was a year ago,” said Perfetti. “I think the confidence level is not even close from where it was going into last year’s tournament. So that’s what I’m really excited about. I feel like my game is 10 times better than what it was heading into last year’s tournament. I’m excited and, like I said earlier, thankful that I’ve had this opportunity to play pro and work on my game and make my game so much better over the past year. So I’m pretty lucky.”

Speaking of letter men, 2021 second-rounder Nikita Chibrikov is an alternate captain for Team Russia after wearing the C for his country at the Under-18 tournament last season.

2021 first-rounder Chaz Lucius is part of what should be a powerful Team USA roster and 2020 second-rounder Daniel Torgersson is expected to play a power forward game for Sweden, a team that’s looking for medal-round success after being a dominant round-robin team for multiple seasons.

The Jets would technically have five players participating in the world junior showcase as 2021 third-rounder Dmitry Kuzmin just helped Belarus capture the Division 1A portion of the event, chipping in five points in five games while helping his country move back into the top division for the tournament in 2023.

But the Jets aren’t limited to junior-aged prospects who are having an impact on their respective teams.

Centre Nathan Smith is among the NCAA scoring leaders (he’s second and two points off the pace of Hank Crone of Northern Michigan) as the University of Minnesota-Mankato Mavericks are off to a solid start during his junior season, and 2021 fifth-rounder Dmitry Rashevsky has been a scoring sensation as a 21-year-old with Moscow Dynamo of the Kontinental Hockey League.

Before leaving his Jets season debut with a lower-body injury, 2018 second-rounder David Gustafsson was the latest forward to join the recent graduates from the Manitoba Moose of the AHL, Jansen Harkins (second round, 2015) and Kristian Vesalainen (first round, 2017).

Those players have joined a skilled Jets forward group that also includes a trio of first-rounders: Mark Schiefele (2011), Nikolaj Ehlers (2014), Kyle Connor (2015), plus 2011 third-rounder Adam Lowry and 2013 fourth-rounder Andrew Copp.

Although further work to become an NHL regular is required, Gustafsson’s body of work suggests that if he can remain healthy, there’s a spot for the taking for him, so we’ll recognize him here, rather than list him among the top-five prospects in the system.

“He’s gritty, hard-working and plays the game the right way,” said Jimmy Roy, the Jets director of player development. “He’s so coachable and coaches love him wherever he plays because he’s in the right spot all the time.”

The composition of the Jets’ defence corps has been altered and overhauled over the past several seasons and now includes five of seven players acquired via trade – leaving 2013 first-rounder Josh Morrissey and 2016 first-rounder Logan Stanley as the only homegrown guys left on the back end.

When it comes to organizational depth, the Jets have a number of intriguing blue-liners in the system, most of whom are mobile puck-movers such as Ville Heinola, Leon Gawanke, Declan Chisholm and Simon Lundmark.

Dylan Samberg remains an important prospect as well and the only reason he fell just beyond the list is that he suffered a high-ankle sprain on the first day of Jets’ training camp and has been limited to only 12 games.

Because of his size, mobility and physical nature, he still projects to be a shutdown blue-liner who could battle for an NHL roster spot as early as next season.

“The physical part of his game is having that net-front presence, finishing on guys, that part of his game is there and that’s a huge part of his game,” said Roy. “Then his puck skills, getting back for pucks quickly and making those easy decisions, it’s coming for him and he’s going in the right direction.”

Because of his age (24), Johnny Kovacevic has graduated from the prospects to depth player category but after a strong training camp, he’s still very much in the discussion when it comes to players pushing for work.

Kovacevic is at the front of the line when it comes to right-handed shooting blue-liners under consideration for recall opportunities.

The Jets’ current goalie tandem features a late-round steal in Connor Hellebuyck (fifth round, 2012) who has won a Vezina Trophy, and Eric Comrie (second round, 2013), who continues to work on solidifying his spot as an NHL backup.

The Jets also have a number of goalie prospects, including Mikhail Berdin, who is the Moose starter and earned a one-way contract for next season, when he is no longer exempt from waivers.

The transition to the North American game has gone smoothly from Arvid Holm, while Jared Moe has shown significant improvement since transferring to the University of Wisconsin Badgers this season (2.62 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in 14 games).

Here’s a closer look at the Jets top-five prospects:

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Cole Perfetti, 19 (turns 20 on Jan. 1), Manitoba Moose

AHL stats: 17 GP | 6 G | 9 A | 15 Pts. | 2 PIM

Among an impressive batch of prospects, the 10th overall pick in 2020 could end up being the crown jewel.

He has the versatility to be used at either centre or wing and the hockey awareness to thrive in almost any situation he’s put in.

Whether it’s his vision or his underrated shot and quick release, Perfetti projects to be an impact player.

“He’s learning and understanding how to make those high-end plays at a high pace,” said Roy. “Coming out of cutbacks, coming out of turns, taking those first few steps to create some separation where you can make a play, that’s where I think he’s improving too.

“He is such a good thinker, the way he sees the game and all of that processing has been sped up for him, being able to play in the American Hockey League. Whether it’s ice time, shot release, trusting your teammates, systems, all of those things are getting fast-tracked for him.”

Ville Heinola, 20, Manitoba Moose

AHL stats: 20 GP | 2 G | 12 A | 14 Pts. | 12 PIM

Bringing in veterans Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon in offseason trades certainly delayed the arrival of Heinola to full-time duty.

But while that’s probably been a source of frustration for both the player and the vocal #freeVille movement among the fan base, the best way for Heinola to force his way into the discussion is to dominate in the minors.

Heinola was recalled for two games earlier this season but was a healthy scratch in each of them before he was returned.

During his time with the Moose, Heinola has been a consistent play-driver and his ability to execute clean exits is a tool the Jets are going to reap the benefits from once he makes the jump to the NHL.

This is a guy who should eventually grow into a top-pairing guy and likely run the top power play unit because of his ability to distribute the puck and get his shot through from the top.

The challenge for Heinola has been on the defensive side of the puck, and he’s taken some strides on that front over the course of this season.

“He’s highly skilled. He wants to jump (up on the rush) all the time, but it’s (about) those reads. We don’t want to ever take that (aggressiveness) away from him because his strength is going to be in jumping and setting up the play,” Moose head coach Mark Morrison told reporters earlier this month. “As a coaching staff, we’ve been trying to get through to him about the defensive game. The last couple of games before he got called up, he was getting better. It’s not that he can’t do it, it’s a mindset for him. He always wants to go, go, go. He needs to look after his own end first and then go – and he’s started to do that.

“His stick was getting better, he was turning over more pucks and he was physical. Not in a big way, where he’s dropping guys in the neutral zone, but he’s riding guys out of the play. He’s using his body and his skating ability. He definitely is on the incline.”

Chaz Lucius, 18, University of Minnesota Golden Gophers

NCAA stats: 12 GP | 5 G | 3 A | 8 Pts. | 2 PIM

A knee injury was one of the only reasons Lucius dropped to the Jets at 18th overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, as he’s viewed as one of the best pure goal scorers in the entire class.

But Lucius isn’t a one-dimensional player and he’s demonstrated solid growth during his freshman season, embracing a shift from his natural position of centre to right wing.

All that’s required for Lucius to take his game to the next level is to continue to put in the off-season work to grow into his frame and get a bit stronger.

“He can turn his back to the play and figure out where it’s going and where it’s going to be three seconds before it gets there – similar to what Kyle Connor did when he was in college,” said Roy. “He can see the game and see plays develop and he can pass the puck. As much as he can finish, he might even be a better passer.”

Dmitri Rashevsky, 21, Moscow Dynamo

KHL stats: 40 GP | 18 G | 14 A | 32 Pts. | 4 PIM

Few players chosen in the late rounds by the Jets since the franchise relocated from Atlanta to Winnipeg have seen as dramatic an ascension as Rashevsky.

He’s gone from virtual unknown chosen as a 20-year-old to high-end prospect in a matter of months, thanks to an outstanding start to the campaign in the KHL.

Rashevsky has demonstrated tremendous finishing ability and is tied for sixth in goals and for 15th in scoring in the KHL, despite his age and limited experience at that level.

When you see what Kirill Kaprizov (who is now 24) has done with the Minnesota Wild since coming over, it’s impossible not to wonder if Rashevsky could be on a similar trajectory.

That’s where patience is going to be required, as Rashevsky recently added another year to his deal with Moscow Dynamo and won’t likely be coming over to North America until the fall of 2023.

“The skill level that he has is elite, it’s off the charts,” said Roy. “He just thinks the game differently than a lot of players, with where he goes and his positioning and stuff like that.”

Nathan Smith, 23, Minnesota State University-Mankako

NCAA stats: 20 GP | 11 G | 16 A | 27 Pts. | 27 PIM

Originally drawn to the sport by playing roller hockey in Tampa, Smith might be a late bloomer but he’s arrived and looks like a guy who is ready to turn pro at the end of this season.

Smith helped the Mavericks reach the Frozen Four last season and they’re the top-ranked team in Division 1 with a record of 16-4.

He’s also working to keep himself in the mix for the Hobey Baker Award as the top men’s player in the NCAA.

“When he moves his feet, gets in on the forecheck and is first on pucks, everyone has to keep up to him because he’s such a good skater,” said Roy. “That’s his biggest thing right now. He’s smart, he’s got skill and he’s good defensively.”

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