Cole Perfetti looked like he was having the time of his life Tuesday. The 20-year-old forward was back doing what he loves on the ice with his Winnipeg Jets teammates and taking the next big step in his return from a pair of injuries suffered earlier this season.
There’s just one little problem: Perfetti’s recovery is ramping up just in time for his schedule to go dark.
“Yeah, I’m in a tough spot when it comes to that,” he admitted following the practice at Canada Life Centre, in which he joined the main group for the first since February while clad in a yellow non-contact sweater.
The Jets have missed the playoffs, their season comes to an end Sunday. Perfetti won’t be full healed by then. And he’s ineligible for go down and skate for the Manitoba Moose in the post-season due to a technicality that prevented him from being assigned to the AHL club last month in time to make the “clear day” roster because he was on long-term injured reserve in the NHL and didn’t have enough pro games accrued (unlike Kristian Reichel, who was in an identical position but was able to be sent down).
“It would have been amazing to go there and join that team for that run, but obviously that didn’t work out,” said Perfetti. “Anytime you can get any playoff experience it’s massive. Especially in the AHL on a team that’s going to go far on a big run. That experience is really important for players and if I was able to get that at a young age that would have been beneficial for me. But obviously the rules prevent that. There’s nothing I can do about that. Just have to ride with the punches and go with it.”
So, even as he gets closer to being game-ready, there likely won’t be any action for quite some time. Barring an invite to the World Championships next month in Finland, the next potential target becomes the re-scheduled World Juniors which Perfetti was a part of last December before COVID-19 shut the whole tournament down.
“We’ll probably make the decision with what’s best for the player. He’s missed a lot of hockey, and we’d probably like to get him in a competitive environment sooner rather than later,” interim coach Dave Lowry said of Perfetti, who would have normally “aged out” of eligibility by now, but can play due to being included on the original 2021 roster.
Perfetti began the year by making the Jets out of training camp, was re-assigned to the Moose after a handful of games, then got another call-up after Christmas and really started coming into his own. Prior to taking a big hit from Seattle’s Jamie Oleksiak during a Feb. 17 game against Seattle, he was playing on a line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and leading scorer Kyle Connor. He’d put up six points over a 10-game stretch after just a single point in his first eight NHL games.
“There’s never a good time to get injured. And I kind of felt like I was finally getting — it’s going to take a long time to get fully comfortable — but it’s getting more comfortable every game. Playing with those guys was a lot of fun,” said Perfetti, a natural centre who had shifted to the right wing.
“We started to put up some numbers and find a groove offensively. We were playing well, so it was frustrating obviously going out. But I kind of just proved to myself that I can play with guys of that calibre and can make plays with them. Obviously there’s lots to work on, tons of room for improvement, and everyone’s like that, especially me as a young guy coming up. Playing with those two guys you learn lots. Just kind of proved to myself that it’s going to be a long road ahead, but I can stay with those guys and play with them at that calibre of hockey.”
While rehabilitating the original shoulder injury, Perfetti suffered a second ailment that essentially cost him the rest of the season. He began skating on his own a couple of weeks ago, joined the Jets for their season-ending four-game road trip through the Eastern Conference before getting his first team practice in Tuesday.
“Obviously getting back on the ice is huge for not just the progression but for my mental state. Being eight weeks off the ice or whatever it was, it was pretty hard. It felt like it was eight months,” he said.
Perfetti, the 10th-overall pick from 2020, has 41 (15 goals, 26 assists) points in 49 AHL games. That’s even more impressive considering he would normally have been ineligible to play in the AHL due to being too young if not for COVID-19 shutting down the Ontario Hockey League last season.
There’s no question he is a major part of Winnipeg’s future.
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“I think the biggest thing for progression is that he’s an extremely intelligent player and he can make plays. He’s not afraid to get inside. And that’s only going to help him down the road,” said Lowry, who isn’t sure whether a return to centre is in the cards at some point for Perfetti.
“I think there’s going to be flexibility,” he said. “Let’s remember one thing. Centre is a hard position to play in the National Hockey League. Especially for a lot of young guys. Sometimes it’s better to learn the game on the wing. The responsibility is not quite the same in the D zone. And it’s not quite as heavy.”
Regardless of where he plays — or when — Perfetti plans to be ready.
“I think my mind right now is to get as healthy as I can as fast as possible, for the summer. This is going to be a big summer for me,” he said. “Off the ice, on the ice, it’s four months where I can get stronger, get faster, do what I need to do to make sure that when I come back next September I’m in the best shape and my health is in the best spot.”