WINNIPEG — Never mind the highlight-reel goal in the shootout that didn’t really count.
This isn’t to diminish the fact Winnipeg Jets top forward prospect Cole Perfetti pulled off the same shifty move against his Vezina Trophy-winning teammate on the opening day of training camp, but the slippery forward-backhand-delay-forehand finish was equally impressive when he beat Filip Gustavsson in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.
Given the exhibition rules, this was just a dress rehearsal to help teams for down the road when the extra point really matters, but for the time being that impressive show of skill is merely stored for safe-keeping by the Jets’ coaching staff and won’t really factor into his battle to try and nail down a job in the opening-day lineup against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 13.
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) September 27, 2021
Of course it won’t hurt Perfetti’s cause. But if he’s able to stick around and avoid being sent to the minors, it will be because of his ability to process the game both with and without the puck.
“You know what, he’s a really smart player,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “He’s got a killer move on the shootout and he would be a guy, this is just about time and reps for him. He’s got to get in, get a feel for the speed of the game. There were two or three just positioning clips in the offensive zone, he didn’t have the puck, where he did it perfectly. It was just right on. The angle was right. He stayed in the right spot. So I know he’s a very, very smart guy. So he’s got really good hands. He’s got really good vision.”
That remarkable vision was on display when he nearly connected with Luke Johnson.
Perfetti showed his spatial awareness to create a passing lane by buying himself some extra time and made a nice effort to get the puck through to Johnson, even if the pass was not quite on the mark.
“He’s going to get used to the timing and speed of the pro game,” said Maurice. “And all of those other things, what you like the most of was his adherence with what he was supposed to be doing without the puck. So he values it.
“He’s not sharking around the game trying to figure out where he can break it loose to show you what kind of hands he’s (got). He’s doing all the right things, which tells you at some point you’re going to be able to put him on the ice, even if he’s not scoring. That’s the key piece for the skill guy. What do you do without the puck?”
Just last week, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff left a small trail of breadcrumbs for reporters when asked a question about what it means for the organization to have the option to send Perfetti to the AHL instead of the Ontario Hockey League.
“He’s not there yet,” said Cheveldayoff.
While he wasn’t making a declaration Perfetti was a lock to secure a spot, this was a simple acknowledgement that the Jets’ 2020 first-rounder has lofty goals in mind — goals the 10th overall pick openly shared on the first day of the pro mini camp that preceded his first taste of an actual NHL training camp.
And with Mark Scheifele forced to sit out the opener as he serves the final game of his suspension, a player like Perfetti could keep himself in the equation a bit longer than usual.
How he performs in the coming weeks will ultimately dictate what the next step for Perfetti will be, but he definitely helped his cause on Sunday night.
Dubois needs stitches
Being able to play in front of what was close to a full building for the first time since March of 2020 made Pierre-Luc Dubois happy, even if the 15 stitches to his face after taking a cross-check from Ridly Greig made it difficult for him to smile.
Dubois was going to finish a check on Greig in the offensive zone at 10:31 of the second period, but the Senators’ 2020 first-rounder got his stick up in the grill of the Jets’ centre.
The call on the ice was a double-minor for high-sticking, but after reviewing the play on the iPad during the stoppage in play, the call was upgraded to a cross-checking major and game misconduct for the Brandon Wheat Kings star. The NHL’s department of player safety has since said it Greig would have a hearing for the incident.
“I don’t think he did it on purpose. I don’t really know him, but I know he’s a good player, scored a nice goal in the first,” said Dubois. “I think he just got scared, threw his stick up. He saw me coming and threw his stick up to defend himself, which is obviously against the rules for an obvious reason. It is what it is.”
Dubois didn’t play for the rest of the second period as he received repairs that were evident during his post-game session with reporters, but he returned for the third period, finishing with 18 shifts for 16 minutes and 34 seconds of ice time.
“I felt good leading up to the crosscheck,” said Dubois. “It was tough to get back in the game (after that). But I felt good leading up to that, (in terms of) execution and stuff like that. You’ll never start the preseason feeling 100 per cent. Sometimes it’s the legs, sometimes it’s the mind. It’s (about) putting it together piece by piece.”
Dubois scored a power-play marker, while CJ Suess had the other goal for the Jets, who finished the game 1-for-5 with the man-advantage.
Winnipeg Jets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) carries the puck around Ottawa Senators’ Lassi Thomson (60) and Erik Brannstrom (26) during third period NHL preseason action in Winnipeg, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (Fred Greenslade/CP)
The departure of Dubois for half a period wasn’t the only time Maurice was forced to hold his breath as Nikolaj Ehlers left the game for several minutes after he got tangled up with a Senators player in the neutral zone. Ehlers was actually called for tripping on the play but didn’t serve the penalty as he received some medical attention before returning to action.
“That is probably the biggest challenge for those guys in exhibition hockey. You can’t play-fight in hockey and be good,” said Maurice. “Everyone is still trying to get their timing, trying to get their hands, trying to get good. The game is still physical, full contact, with lots of chaos. So you hope everyone gets through it healthy. Both of them are.
“Pierre-Luc had a whole bunch of stitches and he had the option of not coming back based on it, but he wanted to come back out and play so good on him for that. (Ehlers) is always a more effective player when he’s in some scrums and some battles, so we’ve come to expect that.”
Maurice isn’t going to over analyze this opening game, whether a player turned heads or had a few issues to overcome.
“You have a huge spectrum of people coming to the rink,” said Maurice. “Some guys, this could be their one game to make their impression. Other guys are wondering ‘How many games is the coach going to make me play?’ There is a big difference for each player coming to the rink. It’s almost all positive at this stage.
“If you’ve had either good camps or you’ve been a good player and you had a terrible night I won’t think twice about it. If you’re somebody that you don’t know and you’ve had a good night today, that’s a positive.
“I don’t think anybody is going to lose anything if they had a tough night. It won’t change what we think of them.”
One of those players who caught the attention of Maurice was defenceman Johnathan Kovacevic, who is coming off a strong season with the Moose and is trying to improve his standing.
Kovacevic took 22 shifts for 17 minutes and 24 seconds of ice time, finishing with one shot on goal and one takeaway.
“You think about the strides that he’s made over the last couple of years,” said Maurice. “He looked composed with the puck. His reads were really good, he had some good box outs, some good physicality. He made some plays, some smart plays with the puck. That would have been one of the new faces for me. I didn’t get to see him play at all last year. He was good.”
Fourth line seeks identity
Thanks to the departures of Nate Thompson, Trevor Lewis and Mathieu Perreault in free agency, one of the more hotly-contested battles will be for fourth-line roles.
The Jets will be looking to the fourth line to consistently provide close to double digits in ice time this season, but is unlikely to be anchored by veteran players the way it has been the past several campaigns.
But exactly what it’s going to look like remains very much a work in progress.
“That will really depend on the identity they create,” said Maurice. “That identity is built by the structure of it. I’m not demanding that we have a certain identity and try to make players play a game that they can’t. If it’s a bit more skilled, then we are going to want to see them do some things with the pucks.
“But there is that base level, and a lot of times (the question is) ‘can you do that against the other teams’ fourth line?’ If you can do it, if their fourth line is heavy and physical and you can be a more skilled line, then that can be a great advantage for you. But you’ve got to make sure you can do the right things against those lines.”
Riley Nash has taken the majority of the reps at centre during the first four days of training camp and the opening exhibition game and looks like the front-runner for that job — though he has the versatility to be able to be used as a right-winger as well.
How long does Nash think it takes for that identity to start taking shape?
“That’s a good question. I think it depends a lot on the other lines as well, where guys are going, where we’re shaking out,” said Nash. “It’s just getting all those guys on the same page and making sure we’re as responsible as possible and they can trust us (for) D-zone faceoffs and d-zone hits against their top lines. It definitely takes time and it’s definitely on all the players on the fourth line.”
The loss of Thompson and Lewis, coupled with Mason Appleton joining the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft means the Jets are going to need several players to step into penalty killing roles this season.
Having the ability to play on special teams has been one of the pre-requisites for the fourth line under Maurice.
In Sunday’s game, Jansen Harkins and Kristian Vesalainen were both given the chance to take turns on the penalty kill — along with work on the power play.
The Senators finished zero-for-four on the power play, while Harkins drew the primary assist on the Dubois goal, so it was a strong start for him in the battle to move up the pecking order on the forward depth chart.
Winnipeg Jets’ goaltender Eric Comrie (1) makes a save on Ottawa Senators’ Tyler Ennis (63) as Andrew Copp (9) defends during first period NHL preseason action in Winnipeg, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (Fred Greenslade/CP)
Comrie shakes off rust
Jets goalie Eric Comrie gave up three goals on 27 shots in just over 60 minutes of work on Sunday in what was his first NHL action since Feb. 22 — when he propelled the New Jersey Devils to a 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
This was the first step in Comrie’s quest to nail down the backup job behind Connor Hellebuyck and he’s scheduled to get at least one more exhibition appearance – likely next weekend against either the Edmonton Oilers or Vancouver Canucks.
Comrie gave up a backhand goal to Greig in the first period, then settled into a nice groove before giving up the equalizer to Alex Formenton on a shot from the middle of the circle that went off the far post and in.
Shane Pinto delivered the overtime winner on a perfect shot that beat Comrie high to the blocker side just 25 seconds into the three-on-three session.
Despite being limited to only one shot on goal in the second period, Comrie didn’t think the lack of action impacted his performance.
“No, I don’t think so. That’s a goalie’s job,” said Comrie. “I mean, we get paid to stay in the moment, stay in focus, and I think it was fine. I had a couple of shots early in the third period that got me right back into it. Even throughout, there was still some movement in our zone. I know there wasn’t a ton of action but still, it’s mostly the movement stuff that keeps you in the zone more than anything else.”
Comrie vowed to scour through the videotape for ways he could have played the shots differently, but he remained upbeat.
“I thought there (were) lots of things I liked,” said Comrie. “I felt pretty solid. I felt rebound control was pretty solid in the first period and throughout the first bit there. I made a couple good down low saves, a couple good saves through traffic. So I think that was nice for me to be able to go out there and do that and see through some screens and just react. Just play hockey again and have some fun.
“I haven’t played a ton of games in a long time here. It feels nice to get back out there and get a little rust off and just build off that.”