Winnipeg Jets fans starved for top-tier hockey at this point will be happy to know they will be able to see some of their top prospects in action at the 2021 World Junior Championship in just a month’s time.
On Christmas Day, the World Juniors will begin behind closed doors at Rogers’ Place in Edmonton, instead of in Edmonton and Red Deer as originally planned, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the puck does drop in the Edmonton bubble, one can expect to see a trio of Jets play prominent roles.
Cole Perfetti — Canada
The 2020 10th-overall selection is poised to be the first Jet to represent Canada since Eric Comrie, Josh Morrissey, and Nic Petan were on the 2015 gold-medal winning squad.
Perfetti, an elite offensive talent pegged as the Jets’ second-line centre of the future, will look to have a strong showing and prove that he deserves a long look at Jets camp when it gets underway.
Perfetti will have plenty of drive to make Team Canada. The Saginaw Spirit standout was cut from last year’s selection camp but used the snub as motivation, popping off 66 points in 32 games after World Junior camp and finishing the OHL season with 111.
“Last year being so close, and then seeing them win, I’m definitely using it as motivation and fuel to make the team and win a gold medal this year,” Perfetti told the Winnipeg Sun’s Paul Friesen last month. “It would mean the world to me. I’d be so ecstatic and thrilled and honoured. It’d be so surreal, living up to your childhood dream to play for that team. Not just for myself, but for my family and all my supporters.”Cole Perfetti on playing for Canada at the 2021 World Juniors.
(From ‘Perfect opportunity for Jets prospect Perfetti,’ Winnipeg Sun, Oct. 30, 2020.)
Despite his small stature, Perfetti will not be overlooked this year and should be given the opportunity top play a top-six role, but may have to play the wing given the number of top centres among the 47 players currently participating in Canada’s selection camp in Red Deer.
Similar to many junior-league players throughout North America, Perfetti is champing at the bit to finally play competitive games again. The OHL, like the WHL, has not started yet. The OHL plans to start a shortened season, sans bodychecking, on Feb. 4, but we know COVID can derail even the best-laid plans quite quickly.
Ville Heinola — Finland
It should be deja-vu for 2019 20th-overall selection Ville Heinola: a third-straight World Juniors patrolling the Finnish blue line.
The swift and smart 19-year-old was a member of Finland’s 2019 and 2020 World Juniors squads, recording one goal and six assists in 12 games overall. He won gold in 2019.
Heinola should be a top-pair d-man at this, his final crack at the under-20 tournament. He’ll be coming to Edmonton primed and ready as he’s already played against men all fall: he’s logging big minutes for Lukko Rauma of SM-liiga on a loan and has 12 assists in 15 games. He’s ramped up his offensive production lately, recording seven assists in his last three games as of Nov. 21.
After the World Juniors, Heinola will challenge for a full-time spot on the Jets’ in-flux blue line for 2020-21.
Henri Nikkanen — Finland
Nikkanen, 19 years old and selected in the fourth round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, also has a good chance of cracking Finland’s roster.
In 2019-20 — the season after falling to 113th overall due to an injury-riddled draft year — the left-handed centre recorded 13 goals and 15 assists for Jukurit’s U20 SM-sarja team and three assists for Jukurit’s main SM-liiga team.
The 6-foot-4, 203-pound Nikkanen has represented his country at various U16, U17, and U18 tournaments, but has never played in the World Juniors. Last year, he was among the final cuts.
Nikkanen’s grown and bulked up since being drafted (he was listed as 6-foot-2 and 180-pounds last June) and is currently playing for the SM-liiga’s Jukurit once again. He has a strong chance of finally sticking with Finland’s World Junior squad.
2021 World Juniors Might Generate More Chatter Than Ever
With no big gatherings in the cards for anyone in Winnipeg this holiday season due to a terrible second wave and harsh restrictions (as of this writing, Manitoba is in “Critical” on the province’s Pandemic Response System and no one is even allowed to socialize outside their own household) Jets fans will be watching their prospects closer — and critiquing them in more detail — than ever.
This writer, for one, will be planted firmly in front of his television for not just the games involving Jets prospects, but for every game between the opening tilts on Christmas Day until one team accepts their glittering gold medals on Jan. 5. Thankfully, the World Juniors is one holiday tradition even COVID can’t kibosh.