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Cole Perfetti: Loose From the Moose

Thanks in large part to some unexpected AHL seasoning, Cole Perfetti has quickly swapped the ‘prospect’ tag for ‘full-time NHLer’. And he's thankful for the journey.
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Note: This article originally appeared in The Hockey News' Future Watch issue.

Cole Perfetti would be quite all right with never having to pull on a Manitoba Moose jersey ever again. And it's unlikely he ever will.

He’ll be the first to tell you he has faith in what the Jets have planned for him. At its root, this is a matter of not only seeing the grass is greener but being able to enjoy what the pasture has to offer.

“The NHL lifestyle, the dinners, the private planes, playing in front of 20,000 people, everything about it is just everything you dream of and as advertised,” Perfetti said. “It really is. It’s unbelievable. And as much as I love the Moose, love the guys, had a great opportunity, great chance, and great time there with them and learned so much and am grateful for everything I had with the Moose, once you’ve had that taste of the NHL, you never want to go back to the ‘A.’ ”

Inextricable from Perfetti’s story, however, will be what the league will have meant to his career. He was among the rare few who could be used as case studies for what elevating top-tier prospects to the AHL instead of relegating them to an additional season of pounding on their junior peers can do for a player’s development. As a result of the OHL’s initially postponed and later cancelled 2020-21 campaign, and thanks to the AHL opening its doors during the pandemic-shortened season to prospects orphaned by league shutdowns, Perfetti had the opportunity to spend last year getting a grasp on what life was like at the next level.

“To get the chance in the AHL and to do the same the first half of this year has helped so much with the little things,” he said. “Playing the right way, learning both sides of the puck, all that kind of stuff. Learning the man’s game is a big difference. When most kids were taking a step back and not getting any better, I was fortunate enough to take a step forward in my hockey career. So, to learn the pro style, that was huge for me.”

It was also a crash course. Selected 10th overall by the Jets in 2020 on the heels of an outrageous 111-point season with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, Perfetti couldn’t have had any reasonable expectation that he’d be spending the following season playing against the pros. That’s particularly true given the Jets’ model of development is one that distinctly takes its cues more from the tortoise than the hare. Yet there was Perfetti, a little more than a month after helping Canada to silver at the 2021 World Junior Championship, lining up in the AHL.

Statistically, the early returns weren’t bad. He scored his first pro goal in his first pro game. Through seven games, he had two goals and four points. Pretty good for a kid who describes himself as “not the biggest, not the fastest,” and said he needed to find a way for his game to translate. But to Jets assistant GM and Moose GM Craig Heisinger, the middling offensive production masked some larger deficiencies. “He was able to contribute somewhat on the power play early on in the AHL season last year,” Heisinger said. “The struggles at 5-on-5 continued.”

Perfetti can agree with that assessment. He’ll even add things didn’t really start to click until about his 10th game, which is a sentiment Heisinger readily echoes. Perfetti was beginning to figure out how to see soft spots in coverage, how to create offense from defense and the necessity of being on the right side of the puck. It added up to a sizable leap in the back half of the season. His point-per-game performance – 22 points in his final 22 games of 2020-21 – is enough to bear that out, and Heisinger noted a marked change in Perfetti’s ability to contribute at five-a-side. It was much of the same when Perfetti landed back in the AHL early in this season, too.

“He was able to pick that up at the start of this year and nothing was a surprise,” Heisinger said. “And the (AHL) certainly stepped up a notch, because it was back to where it normally is with no taxi squads. He was able to be a factor, and being able to do that as a 19-year-old is really, really challenging and a credit to him.”

His play didn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded, either.

When the Jets found themselves in need of reinforcements as injuries and ailments took a bite out of the squad, Perfetti was among the first plucked from the AHL, on Dec. 31, the day before he turned 20. On Jan. 18 – five games into his NHL career – he was raising his arms and drifting face-first into the glass celebrating his first NHL goal, a well-placed wrister fired home on a 2-on-1 against the Washington Capitals. “I’ve never anticipated scoring a goal more than that,” he said. “Dreamed of it since I was two years old. To have that come true, to score, it’s relief, joy, happiness. You work so hard and your family puts so much time and effort in, it’s almost like a celebration. Scoring that first goal was like, ‘Wow, I’m here now.’ ”

Just being there isn’t enough, though. Perfetti wants to be there to stay. And to make that a reality, Perfetti knows he needs to take a page out of his time in the AHL. That means getting that little bit better with each passing game until he gets to the point he feels he’s finally starting to break through. He’s done enough to impress the Jets. He’s been with the big club throughout 2022, which resulted in his shift from Future Watch “prospect” to “21-and-under NHLer”. Before the status change, he was easily Winnipeg’s No. 1 prospect and would’ve ranked among the top 10 in our league-wide rankings. 

An injury prematurely ended his season, but he's just getting started. As change looms in Winnipeg, expect Perfetti to be a huge part of the team's future.

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