The Manitoba Moose began their 2021 training camp on Monday at Bell MTS Iceplex under a set of rather unique circumstances.
There were only 10 skaters and two goaltenders taking part in that first on-ice session. And while the American Hockey League has set a date of Feb. 5 for starting the season, the four teams that will make up the realigned Canadian Division do not have a confirmed schedule.
None of that uncertainty has dampened the enthusiasm of Winnipeg Jets 2020 first-round draft pick Cole Perfetti. The highly skilled forward made no attempt to conceal his excitement about getting the chance to play in his first professional game. And the 19-year-old Saginaw Spirit star centre also noted the appreciation he has for that opportunity.
“Normally there’s only a handful of guys, one or two guys that make NHL out of their draft year as an 18-year-old and the rest go back to junior or wherever they played the year before,” Perfetti said during a post-practice Zoom call.
“The opportunity that I’m getting to play pro hockey this year, I’m very fortunate for that. Not a lot of kids are in this situation as a 19-year-old so I’m just grateful this rule is in place that I’m allowed to play pro hockey. This is going to prepare me for my end goal of making the NHL.”
Count Moose head coach Pascal Vincent in the camp of believing the pandemic shutdown of amateur hockey is a silver lining for the highly skilled five-foot-11, 177-pound, left-shot centre.
“I think this is great for him. He’s learning about the language that we use and the components of our systems. He’s understanding the kind of practices we’re going to run. He’s exposed to pro players —
he had some battles today against bigger guys,” said Vincent, who is going into his fifth season at the helm of Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate.
“Practising doesn’t replace playing games. In the best-case scenario, he’s playing junior and playing a lot of minutes and he’s being put in a position to succeed. I think what we’re doing right now is the second-best scenario.”
If the OHL were playing, Perfetti would either have to remain with the parent Jets or return to junior. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding what will happen if the Ontario Hockey League season does get off the ground.
But the 19-year-old Whitby, Ont., native isn’t concerning himself with what may or may not take place. His only focus is raising his personal game to be able to compete at the next level, just as he did when he arrived in Saginaw, Mich., as a 16-year-old in the late summer of 2017.
“I think it’s going to be an adjustment and it’s going to take time to have a feeling-out process of the games and try to get used to it,” Perfetti said of his game plan to handle the faster and heavier pace of the AHL. “I remember coming from minor midget to the OHL — there was a feeling-out process for the first five, 10 games and I had to get used to that big adjustment so I’m expecting something similar here.”
And “here” is so close to where Perfetti eventually wants his hockey journey to take him that it has just fuelled his fire to gain the attention of the Jets — and strengthened his resolve to play as many games in the NHL this season as he possibly can.
“For the taxi squad, they’re knocking on the Moose and asking those guys to come up so my goal here is to go out every day and practise, and in games just perform to my very best and work really hard and hopefully the coaches notice,” said Perfetti. “When the Jets need a guy for the taxi squad or for the team, hopefully my work ethic and play speak for itself and hopefully I can get an opportunity.”
And Perfetti is not the least bit deterred after last Saturday’s blockbuster trade that brought Pierre-Luc Dubois into the fold and added an even greater degree of difficulty to play in the NHL during this shortened season.
“Now if you look at the centre core of the Jets, they’re pretty deep and pretty talented through all four lines,” was how Perfetti’s answer began when asked about his reaction to the deal that sent Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to Columbus. “Growing up, I always played wing and centre. Same in the OHL. And then world juniors I played the wing so I feel very confident in my abilities to be able to play my game on the wall.”
Perfetti says maybe down the line he’ll get his chance to play in the middle, but he’d be just fine playing any forward position in the NHL. And the belief that he can live out his dream has only been strengthened by seeing national junior teammates like Dylan Cozens, Bowen Byram and Connor McMichael all make their NHL debuts with Buffalo, Colorado and Washington, respectively, since the tournament in the Edmonton bubble ended earlier this month.
“It’s exciting to see Cozzy score his first goal, for Bo to play the way he is and get his first assist, and obviously Mich’s playing his first game yesterday. It definitely is inspirational. It makes me want to get my chance, get an opportunity to do whatever I can to get in the lineup and make the most of it.”
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