The Winnipeg Jets entered this offseason with plenty of questions surrounding the center ice position, with Mark Scheifele entering the final season of his contract, and Pierre-Luc Dubois expressing his desire to play elsewhere.
Once Dubois was traded to Los Angeles in late June, the question immediately shifted to the second line center position.
Was it going to Gabe Vilardi, who was acquired in said Dubois trade? Could former first rounder Rasmus Kupari, who was traded alongside Vilardi, get a chance there?
What about Vladislav Namestnikov or Cole Perfetti?
Head coach Rick Bowness put an end to those questions yesterday, telling reporters that Cole Perfetti would start as the second line center. He also said Gabe Vilardi will start playing right wing alongside Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor.
Winnipeg had a wide range of options and line combinations to choose from and in my eyes, they’ve made the correct one.
Both for now and the long term.
Long term, Adam Lowry is the only Jet signed beyond the next two seasons (Vilardi, Morgan Barron, and Kupari become RFAs at that time). Prospects Chaz Lucius and Brad Lambert are possibly future center ice men, but they have a lot to prove in the AHL before being considered worthy of second line center duty.
Perfetti, meanwhile, is ahead of them developmentally and has a higher ceiling. If he hits as a center, it would be a big win for the Jets.
In the short term, Winnipeg can immediately find out what they have with Perfetti down the middle. In theory, his skill set perfectly matches that of a centerman; he’s a heady player with super soft hands and great vision. If he had the puck on a 3-on-2, you trust he’ll make the correct read and find the open man. When tasked with helping the defensemen break out, you can imagine his hockey sense would shine through along with his ability to distribute the puck.
On the other end, however, are his athletic traits that make you wonder if he can handle the demands of the center ice position – especially at the ripe age of 21. Though he displays sublime playmaking ability, Perfetti stands just five foot eleven, and 185 pounds.
He’s not small per se, he just doesn’t have the size that NHL coaches and GMs love having at the position. Size that helps win battles down low, and strength that helps you win faceoffs.
Perfetti also doesn’t have the quickest feet, which leaves some room for questioning whether, after battling down low in the zone, he’ll have the pace to catch up to the play as it transitions toward the attacking zone.
It’s obvious why it can work. You can also see the challenges.
But Perfetti has only excelled at every level of hockey he’s played at (his hockeyDB page paints that picture rather clearly), and after a good rookie season where he scored 8 goals in 30 points in 51 games, it’s not unreasonable to have faith that he’ll adapt and learn to play the position effectively. It just might take some time.
To start training camp, Perfetti will have Nikolaj Ehlers and Nino Niederreiter on his wings, an interesting combination. With Ehlers’ puck transportation ability, Niederreiter’s size and skills to play down low, you can see the parts – at least on paper – all working well together.
We’ll find out in time just when exactly we can see this trio operate during an actual preseason game, but all eyes will be on the young center when they do. He’s played just 69 games in the NHL so far in his career.
Winnipeg’s first pre-season game is Sunday, November 24th at 5pm CT.