If all went to plan, Cole Perfetti wouldn’t be in the Calder Trophy conversation right now.
Frankly, he’s not going to win it this year anyway. That’s up to Matty Beniers and Logan Thompson to fight it out. Perfetti’s development was abruptly halted after an upper-body injury took him out of the second half of 2021-22 – just weeks after becoming a full-time NHLer. He was limited to just 18 games in the NHL and 17 in the AHL in what was supposed to be his first proper season of pro hockey.
Missing half a season for any player is tough. That’s amplified when you’re a young guy just looking to get your groove at 20 years old.
“That sucked,” Perfetti said about the injury. “But at the same time, it’s great to be back and get the experience of a full season. We’re 40-some-odd games in, and it’s a grind, it’s tiring, lots of travel and playing every other night. It’s not easy, but it’s part of the process. Part of being a rookie is learning how to deal with that, how to go with the ups and downs and how to take care of your body.”
Last season’s bump in the road is in the past. He’s now a crucial piece of Winnipeg’s top six with 26 points in 40 games, and while Beniers might be the runaway skater choice for the Calder, Perfetti has firmly placed himself in the discussion. After an incredible OHL career that saw him finish with 111 points as a second-year player, he got a nice 32-game run with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose while major junior sat doormat during the 2020-21 season.
That, mixed in with a solid World Junior Championship showing with Canada, helped set him up for an explosive promotion to the big leagues, and he’s been excellent ever since. He’s on pace for just over 50 points, which was lessened after another upper-body injury around Christmas, but when healthy, Perfetti’s speed, skill and playmaking acumen have made him one of the most noticeable young stars in the game today.
After a questionable offseason that left many wondering if the Jets were headed for a rebuild, the team sits second in the Central Division and two points behind Dallas for the lead. By all accounts, Winnipeg should be a significant factor in the Stanley Cup fight, and Perfetti has been a big reason why. His 20 points at 5-on-5 are fifth on the Jets, and only Kyle Connor (2.36) has more 5-on-5 points per 60 than Perfetti’s 2.25. Sure, he has a ton of secondary assists, but this kid is producing at just 12:59 5-on-5 minutes a night.
One thing that stands out is his intelligence, both on and off the ice. Scouts considered him to be one of the most competent prospects they had seen in a long time. He thoroughly thinks through his answers to the media, and then on the ice, he always seems to be one step ahead of defenders, which allows him to get creative with his passes.
We saw it more in junior, obviously, but the way Perfetti can draw defensemen to him and away from a secondary attacker is what allowed him to excel so much with Saginaw in the OHL. That takes patience and a level of deception that can’t be taught. That all comes naturally to Perfetti, and his teammates notice.
“He’s one of those guys where if he’s going up the ice, going down the wall, he’s kind of got eyes on the back of his head,” said defenseman Neal Pionk. “As a defenseman coming up late in the rush, I know that, even if he can’t see me, he knows I’m coming.”
Perfetti started his OHL career as a dominant scoring force, and he replicated his 37-goal count in his second year as he focused on improving his playmaking abilities. He had 74 assists as a second-year OHLer, making him one of the best setup players in the CHL. That’s when scouts started to really notice how smart he was at finding his teammates and setting up plays. Off the ice, he was also named the CHL’s Scholastic Player of the Year for his 93 percent average in high school. When you hear those close to him describe him as extremely smart, he has the tools to back the claims up.
Jets coach Rick Bowness loves what he sees.
“He sees the ice very well; he has a good hockey IQ,” Bowness said. “He knows where people are, and he puts the puck in the right spot. He’s getting it away from the defender and giving the receiver of the pass an opportunity to make the next play.”
The Jets value Perfetti, and he’s only just getting started. With how he thinks the game, sets up plays and uses his speed and skill to his advantage, he’ll have a long, prosperous career in the NHL.
The Jets are lucky they managed to grab arguably one of the most dangerous scorers from the 2020 draft at 10th overall, because he has big-game potential written all over him.
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