Talk about making the most of unexpected opportunities. Cole Perfetti capped off a whirlwind season by winning gold with Canada at the World Hockey Championship in Latvia last week.
Suiting up for three different teams, the Jets’ top prospect got a ton of professional hockey experience under his belt and thrived in situations he never would have been in during any other year.
Perfetti Excels, Despite OHL Season’s Cancellation
If COVID-19 didn’t exist, Perfetti would have spent the entire season with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, where he had played since 2018-19. His campaign prior to being selected 10th overall by the Jets at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft was electric, as he scored 37 goals and added 74 assists for 111 points in just 61 games.
But the 2020-21 OHL season never got off the ground despite best efforts by everyone involved, with return-to-play plans continually pushed back and eventually thwarted by Ontario’s third wave. The OHL was the only one of Canada’s three major-junior leagues to not have some sort of season or bubble tournament.
On the Loose With the Moose
While the OHL had originally intended to begin their regular season on Feb. 4, by the end of January, they had abandoned that date and hadn’t set a firm new one.
Perfetti wouldn’t normally have been eligible to play in the AHL due to his age, but concessions were made so players on junior teams impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns didn’t miss an entire year of development. This paved the way for him to join the Manitoba Moose.
“I’m fortunate and lucky to get this opportunity,” Perfetti said at the beginning of Moose training camp. “Normally there’s only a handful of guys, one or two guys, that make the NHL out of their draft year as an 18-year-old… the opportunity I’m getting this year to play pro hockey, I’m very fortunate for that.
“This is going to prepare me best for my end goal of making the NHL. Playing a year of pro is going to be extremely beneficial and helpful in my development.”
Perfetti had a tepid start in his first dozen or so games. “The first 12 games, there was a lot of adjusting, just learning, feeling out the pace and the physicality and the speed,” he told the Winnipeg Sun in mid-April. “That was a big learning process. It’s not easy for a 19-year-old kid to come in and play with these men. It’s hard.” (From “Jets first-rounder Perfetti heartbroken for OHL players after season cancelled,” Winnipeg Sun, April 22, 2021.)
But he quickly adapted to playing against older, more experienced players. As he became comfortable, he started to showcase his game-breaking skill and shot with regularity. In 32 games against Canadian Division opponents, he recorded nine goals and finished second on the team with 26 points.
By the end of the season, Perfetti was dominating and had improved in myriad ways, both with and without the puck. He had a seven-game point streak in April — with four multi-point efforts in those seven games — and 16 points in his final 11. He was named the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month for April.
Perfetti praised Moose head coach Pascal Vincent and the rest of the coaching staff in a recent interview with the Winnipeg Free Press.
“I feel so much better on the ice and so much more confident after the season (with the Moose),” he said. “(The coaches) are so great and really cared about me and my growth as a player. They wanted me to get better, spending a lot of extra time with me on the ice and in video,” he said. “The big part for me is speed and strength, which, obviously, will be an important part for a long time to come.From ”Perfetti brings home the gold,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 8, 2020.
“The defensive side of the game is always something I took seriously but at the pro level it’s just so much harder. I learned a lot and I felt like I’m a much better 200-foot player now, focusing on the D-side of things and how important it is.”
Perfetti Brings Home Hardware Twice for Canada
Prior to his AHL foray, Perfetti suited up for Canada at the 2021 World Junior Championship in Edmonton. He recorded two goals and four assists while playing a combination of wing and centre, and took home a silver medal after Canada was shut out 2-0 by the U.S. in the gold medal game.
Flash forward six months, and Perfetti brought home another, more desirable medal.
After the summation of the AHL season, he was bestowed an extremely high honour for someone so young: the chance to represent Canada at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
While he didn’t get a ton of ice time in the tournament, he suited up for all 10 games and scored two goals for the Canadian club — he tallied the game-winning goal in a comeback against Kazakstan on May 29 and opened the scoring on May 30 versus Italy. Canada lost its first three games of the tournament but bounced back and eventually Finland in the gold medal game.
“They were all such great guys. Some of the guys have played a long time in the NHL and some were fresh, first-year guys. Every guy was different, every guy you could learn from,” Perfetti said of playing in the tournament. “I played pro in the AHL this year, but this was my first time experiencing kind of that NHL lifestyle and what it’s like, and it’s pretty cool.”
Perfetti Looking to Experience More of the NHL Lifestyle This Fall
Perfetti is laser-focused and his goal is clear: to make it to the big leagues.
He should have a fair shot at doing that in 2021-22, as an invite to the main camp should be a lock. It will be interesting to see how hard he pushes for a spot and how much a year spent playing in challenging situations — rather than dominating the OHL — will boost his NHL readiness.
“In a year where a lot of kids didn’t get the opportunity and suffered, I was fortunate enough to get the chances and development to take that next step and become that much better of a hockey player,” he said Thursday.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice — who may or may not still be the bench boss come fall — shared some thoughts on Perfetti, while admitting he hasn’t been around the young star much. “If you go back 16 months for that young man, he couldn’t have predicted what he would end up doing,” he said.
“We liked the way he developed in the American Hockey League, that was good for him,” Maurice continued. “I think he learned a lot, he got stronger as it went on, and he gets an opportunity to play with some pretty darn good players at the World Championship and win a medal, that’s great for him.”