How Winnipeg Jets’ Cole Perfetti stepped up after string of healthy scratches: ‘It’s not been easy’

It’s rare to see an NHL player as visibly frustrated after a win as Cole Perfetti was on March 15.

Perfetti walked in the bowels of Canada Life Centre beside fellow healthy scratch, Dylan Samberg, looking downtrodden. Despite the Winnipeg Jets’ 6-0 demolition of the Anaheim Ducks, Perfetti’s face conveyed disappointment and perhaps even a bit of anger.

Perfetti, scratched for the third time in two weeks, hadn’t been a part of the on-ice celebrations. It’s hard enough for veterans to feel like a big piece of a win when they’re watching from the sidelines; it’s harder still for 22-year-old first-round picks with just over 100 games of NHL experience. Perfetti had spent two months watching his name slide down the Jets’ lineup card, from carefully measured top-six minutes to fourth-line duties and then, after 15 games without a point, the first healthy scratches of his career.

Yet there he was on Tuesday in Winnipeg, jumping into a lane at the tail end of Winnipeg’s desperate, late-game power play, taking Neal Pionk’s pass and positively wiring it past Cam Talbot. Perfetti’s 4-3 third-period snipe was his second goal and third point of the night, matching his point production in 26 games since his cold snap began on Jan. 11. His line with Kyle Connor and Sean Monahan had driven the Jets’ success and now, with 6:55 left on the clock against Los Angeles, Perfetti had scored the goal that ended Winnipeg’s six-game losing streak.

How did he get from the lowest point of his young career to a two-goal, one-assist, game-winning performance?

The answer is a lot of work, on and off the ice.

“It’s not been easy. There’s been some darker days,” Perfetti told The Athletic in March. “You feel like you gave it your all, you played really well and produced for 35, 40 games, whatever it was, I don’t remember exactly but you feel like for a long chunk of the season you helped and produced. But it’s not always going to go your way in hockey. There’s going to be some bad luck.”

Perfetti was an OHL star from the time he was 16. He was selected by the Jets at No. 10 in 2020 and produced 26 points in 32 games for the Manitoba Moose when he was 19. It’s the pedigree of a top-six forward who gets first-unit power-play time. Instead, back-to-back upper-body injuries cut his first two NHL seasons short.

His 2023-24 season began with a series of heavy hits — a training camp head shot from Calgary’s Martin Pospisil, which earned Pospisil a game misconduct, and a hit from behind by the Kings’ Andreas Englund in October. The familiar, lifelong criticisms — too small — became a frequent topic of Perfetti discourse. He didn’t miss time for either hit, instead producing 19 points in his first 25 games of the season.

Then came the minute management. Head coach Rick Bowness routinely sat Perfetti with the Jets up by a goal. His offence continued to hum — pro-rated for ice time, Perfetti has scored the fifth-most goals and third-most primary assists among Jets — but his ice time lagged behind. He went on a two-week tear after a controversial high-stick from Minnesota Wild forward Ryan Hartman and then, suddenly, the bounces dried up.

“I’ve got to take some of the blame on myself,” Perfetti told The Athletic. “I could have played better in some of those games and I know that. I’m aware of that. But that’s the way it goes. Sometimes you get into a funk. Sometimes you get into a drought. At my age and my stage in my career, if you go dry for 10 games when you’re on a good team, it’s probably not looking good for you. That’s just the way it is and it’s a learning curve for me. These last two months have not been easy.”

One of Perfetti’s biggest challenges is that he’s not carving out a career for himself in a vacuum. The team he plays for is heavily invested in a playoff run, starting the season with seven-year contract extensions for Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele, Perfetti’s close friend. It went on to re-sign Nino Niederreiter and acquire top-six veterans like Monahan and Tyler Toffoli without trading away a single player on the roster. Bowness made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020 running a top six, a checking line and a fourth line of grinding players and he’s following the same format in Winnipeg. When Monahan, Toffoli and Gabriel Vilardi were all in the lineup, Bowness struggled to find playing time for the next generation of Jets stars.

Perfetti got into Tuesday’s game because Toffoli was ill. He understood at morning skate that Toffoli was sick and carried himself throughout the day as though he was going to play. He says the biggest thing he’s working on off the ice is letting go of the things he can’t control. Ice time, opportunity and puck luck aren’t within his purview, so he’s focusing on his attitude instead.

Perfetti, who says it’s his nature to overthink things, is willing to walk the harder, more rewarding path.

In one version of the story of Perfetti’s career, this season’s healthy scratches become the precursor for further disappointment. If he pouts or blames other people for his lack of minutes, he’ll end up buried beyond this one year. People will talk about how he was too small or too slow or how he never learned to produce in the NHL, despite scoring (slightly) more points per game than Quinton Byfield, Anton Lundell and Alexis Lafrenière.

In another, more satisfying version of his story, Perfetti takes control of the things he can control, brings a positive attitude to the rink and makes good on the opportunities that a player with his skill set will eventually, inevitably receive — whether that’s Thursday night against Calgary, in the playoffs or even next season.

“I’m working on it. It’s hard,” Perfetti said. “Mentally, I’m hard on myself. I don’t let stuff go very easily,” Perfetti said. “I worry. I think about the future, I think about the past, all that kind of stuff. But all that I can control is to go play my game and play the best that I can.”

Perfetti’s industry is one in which results dictate opportunity, opportunity dictates results, and results dictate compensation. He produced like a top-six forward when he played in the top six, partially because of his hockey sense, hands and playmaking ability, and in part because he played important minutes alongside Nikolaj Ehlers and Vladislav Namestnikov. The line outscored its opposition 10-5 at even strength, mostly before Connor’s injury and Ehlers’ promotion to the top line, and Perfetti arrived at that point of the season with 19 points in 25 games.

Consider the difference in salary available to a player who finished the season with 58 points, as Perfetti was on pace to do as of the season’s midway point, and 32 points, which is where he stands today. It’s the difference between getting a little bit less than Troy Terry money ($7 million AAV over seven years after consecutive 60-point seasons) and a much, much cheaper bridge deal — not to mention the $850,000 in performance bonuses that are slipping away this season.

Perfetti is a pending RFA. We didn’t talk about his upcoming contract last week. We did discuss his long offensive slump, the pressure to produce and what it’s been like to go through the healthy scratch process at this stage of his career.

What has he learned?

“All that I can control is to go play my game and play the best that I can,” he said. “If they don’t like it, that’s out of my control. If a puck goes in or not, that’s out of my control. All I can do is give my honest effort every single time.

“Something I’m working on is trying to leave the past and future alone and just stay in the present and not worry. It just adds an extra level of stress and doesn’t help you. So yes, it’s been hard for me, but I’m working on it.”

Looking at Winnipeg’s most likely playoff lineup, it’s hard to imagine ice time opening up for him anytime soon. Niederreiter was cut on Tuesday, requiring stitches, but he’s expected back before the playoffs and plays a different role than Perfetti.

Bowness says he’s being as transparent as he can be with Perfetti, communicating with him regularly in an effort to make the tough times less difficult, but he knows how much it stings.

“We’re very honest and upfront with Cole,” Bowness said last week. “He’s handling it well. That doesn’t mean he’s accepting it, he’s not. I get that and I love that. You’ve got to fight back a little bit.”

So Perfetti bided his time, advocating for himself with Bowness where possible. He says it hasn’t been easy but that he’s trying to help in any way he can when he does get the opportunity to play. His goal is to build trust, step by step. He sees himself as an impact player in the NHL — he says he knows he can be one but needs to work as hard as he can with the opportunities he receives to get to that level.

For now? A moment of relief, excitement, brightness — and most importantly for Winnipeg, its first win since March 19.

There is also a rare and most precious intangible that comes with scoring a game-winning goal with a scorching wrist shot like Perfetti did on Tuesday.

“It was huge for my confidence. Just getting put in there for that chance. And then obviously, going to the net and banging one in early. That felt great. We created lots as a line, scored lots as a line. So that felt really good. I was just really happy that I could contribute and help get back into that,” Perfetti said Tuesday night. “I missed that for a little bit. It just feels really good to get back and help this team win.”

He’s young, he’s still growing and his biggest impact in Winnipeg’s top six is yet to come. But Perfetti has achieved some key items on his quest to establish himself exactly right.

(Photo: James Carey Lauder / USA Today)

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