Nothing fuels a fan base quite like a debate over when — or if — a top prospect might be ready for graduation.
Evidence will be presented, examples will be cited and it will get many passionate fans into an outright lather.
For much of last season, it was the handling of Ville Heinola that took centre stage and while the top defence prospect in the Winnipeg Jets organization remains very much in that conversation, he’s been joined on the marquee by forward Cole Perfetti.
Perfetti was back in the Jets’ lineup on Thursday night against the Colorado Avalanche, his first NHL action since Oct. 16, 2021 when he finished the contest with just over eight minutes of ice time and was moved down to the fourth line.
The past several weeks were an emotional whirlwind for Perfetti, who took the 2022 world junior hockey championship by storm, posting six points in two games for Team Canada to lead the tournament in scoring before the event was promptly postponed after a COVID-19 outbreak.
If you’ve listened to Perfetti speak at any point during the past 12 months since Canada lost the 2021 gold medal game to the United States, you knew how important playing in this event was to the Jets 2020 first-rounder.
And when Perfetti returned from Edmonton to join the Jets’ taxi squad, he wasn’t trying to hide those emotions when discussing what he’d been through.
The postponement was devastating news for Perfetti, who had his heart set on capturing a gold medal for his country.
The blow was softened somewhat with the news he would be rejoining the NHL club, even if it began as more of an insurance policy.
It’s amazing to be wearing the 🍁! We hope to inspire the next generation of players across Canada. Thanks @ImperialOil for the Esso Medals of Achievement program that rewards the sportsmanship, improvement, and dedication it takes to succeed at whatever you love doing pic.twitter.com/AsKwymIj4W
— Cole Perfetti (@ColePerfetti91) December 24, 2021
Over the course of the next few days of a three-game road trip, there was plenty of anticipation over when — or even if — Perfetti might get back in the Jets lineup.
When he was a healthy scratch for the first two games of the road trip, the conversation quickly changed to, ‘Why is Perfetti sitting in the press box when he could be suiting up for the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League?’
But when Paul Stastny wasn’t available because of injury and Jansen Harkins landed in COVID-19 protocol with defenceman Dylan DeMelo, taxi squad goalie Arvid Holm and video coach Matt Prefontaine, another one of those doors opened for Perfetti — who was promoted to the active roster as David Gustafsson (lower body) was moved to IR.
That was the quick reminder of why Perfetti was with the Jets in the first place and how quickly a situation can change, especially during this pandemic.
When Thursday’s game began, Perfetti found himself on the fourth line with Dominic Toninato and C.J. Suess, but he worked his way into several shifts with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor — and later, with Adam Lowry and Kristian Reichel.
By the time the buzzer sounded in what was a 7-1 loss and rude awakening for the Jets, Perfetti had taken 14 shifts for 10:31 of ice time, including 2:07 on the power play.
There were definitely some encouraging signs for Perfetti, who made some smart reads and put his skill and intelligence on display.
It’s easy to just say, ‘Turn Perfetti loose, put him on one of the top two lines and let his talent take over.’
Ultimately, that’s where Perfetti is going to make his mark, as a point producer who processes the game at an extremely high level.
It is not yet apparent if Perfetti is ready to handle 18 minutes a game or the responsibilities that come with that.
So for the time being, Perfetti’s usage is going to be in flux.
Like all 20-year-olds, there are parts of his game he needs to continue to work on — and some of that learning is likely to still come in the minors.
But when he’s used in the NHL lineup, it’s likely to continue to be in a hybrid role — taking some shifts on the fourth unit and others higher in the lineup, especially if the Jets are chasing the game or looking for offence.
With Stastny out, Perfetti showed well with the man advantage and that’s another area where he can make an immediate impact, given his ability to distribute the puck and underrated shot and release.
It’s all part of the development process.
The beauty of the situation is that some observers are going to view every single game as a referendum over whether or not Perfetti is ready to make the jump to being an NHL regular.
The reality is that the situation is fluid.
What we know for sure is that Perfetti projects to be an impact player, but the full scope on that front won’t likely be known for quite some time.
However, what we learned on Thursday is that Perfetti has taken noticeable strides as a player since making his NHL debut against the Anaheim Ducks in October.
He’s shown an ability to adapt at every level and no matter where he spends the bulk of his time for the remainder of this season, Perfetti’s play is trending upward.
With the Jets not returning to action until Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings, it’s tough to predict whether Stastny will be ready to return from his lower-body injury or if Harkins will come out of COVID-19 protocol and jump right back into the lineup (depending on the severity of his symptoms).
But it’s apparent Perfetti is ready to answer the call whenever his number is called and in whatever role he’s tasked with.
That’s a positive development for the Jets, both in the short term and when it comes to longer-range planning.
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.
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