Taking a sober look at Cole Perfetti’s game

Recency bias is one hell of a drug.

It’s easy to get carried away after a standout international performance. After Cole Perfetti’s 12 points in five games at August’s Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, we saw exactly how easy it is. Craig Button, who can always be counted on for some of the most extreme reactions to those samples, ranked him 3rd soon after. Don’t get me wrong– twelve points is a lot of tallies, and Perfetti showed off a promising array of skills at the tournament, but at the end of the day, it’s just five games. There’s only so much information that can be gleaned from so small of a sample. What’s more important: a five game stretch from the middle of the summer, or the 79 Ontario Hockey League games Perfetti has taken part in since 2018-19. I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the sample that is almost 16 times larger than the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup.

Perfetti made his OHL debut last year after being drafted 5th overall in the 2018 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection. He did well through the first half of the year, then flourished after Saginaw picked up Owen Tippett and Ryan McLeod in a trade with the Mississauga Steelheads. He finished the year with 74 points in 63 games, tied with Tippett for the team lead in points. Of those points, 47 were primary and at even-strength. Of 2020 eligibles in the CHL last year, only Alexis Lafreniére put up a higher rate of EV primary points.

Contrary to what he might have looked like at the Hlinka, Perfetti is not a pure goalscorer. A hyper-intelligent dual-threat forward, Perfetti only has five goals through sixteen games this season; a far cry from his eight tallies in just five Hlinka games. As a D-1, his goal/assist split was right down the middle– 37 goals, 37 assists. He averaged 2.62 shots/game in 2018-19; not a bad rate but somewhat disappointing for a guy with his scoring prowess. He scored on over 22% of his shots last year– some of that is elite finishing talent, but Quinton Byfield has the same finishing ability and he only shot about 17%. It would certainly seem that he got some bounces last year, but unfortunately for him, that puck luck doesn’t seem to have followed him into ’19-20. The good news: Perfetti’s shot generation is way up this year– he leads all OHL 2020 draft eligibles in shots so far this year; averaging a little over 3.81 per game. The bad news is that just 8% of those shots are ending up in the net, a far cry from the way he shot last year.

His scoring might have fallen off a bit (it will come around with time), but Perfetti’s playmaking has filled that gap and more. He has 22 assists– 14 of them primary– in 16 games thus far. Unfortunately, there’s a catch; Perfetti has been heavily reliant on the powerplay for his production so far this year, with just 53% of his points coming at even-strength (Quinton Byfield is at 83%; meanwhile, Marco Rossi is also struggling with EV production with a current ratio of just 50%). Last year, Perfetti managed 78% of his points at even-strength; I expect his 2019-20 rate to rise up to a similar level as our sample of play increases.

Let’s get into his skillset.

Those who payed particular attention to the Hlinka might pin it as his shot or puck skills, but Perfetti’s primary offensive weapon is his intelligence. He’s always looking to support the puck, putting himself in prime position to collect loose pucks and extend offensive possessions. He does a terrific job sensing pressure, drawing forecheckers before distributing to open areas. Perfetti’s reads are outstanding, allowing him to get out ahead of the play and beat defenders to space for opportunities. This intelligence is reflected in all parts of his offensive game– as a playmaker, a scorer, and in transition.

As a scorer, his intelligence shows through a clever knack for seeking out soft ice. His offensive instincts are terrific, taking him to the right spots at the right time to finish off a play. Look at the first three goals in this clip: no crazy feats of scoring ability, but he’s finding pucks in the slot and putting them home. Sometimes proper puck support and a willingness to get into the slot is all it takes.

As a distributor, it’s all about vision and lane creation. Perfetti has terrific vision as a playmaker, identifying open teammates and finding ways to get them the puck. Perfetti is frequently lauded as one of the more creative prospects in this draft, unafraid to differentiate from typical north-south patterns and the “put pucks on net” mentality. Here’s a nice example: he cuts towards the middle and back, reaching the point where he’s actually moving away from the net he’s attacking. He waits for his teammates to drive the slot and for a lane to open up before he attempts the pass. It’s a creative and intelligent play from an extremely creative and intelligent player.

In transition, Perfetti uses his intelligence to identify and expose gaps in the opposing team’s neutral zone set-up. He’s very effective on zone entries, navigating congestion between the bluelines and finding ways to push defenders backwards towards their own goal, creating the space for him to make things happen. This play on a zone entry is a terrific example of that awareness and creativity in transition. By stopping up and turning his back, he draws three defenders to him, creating an isolated two-on-one for his linemates. Plays like this one– small decisions that create space in the offensive zone– are the quiet drivers of Perfetti’s offensive output.

Intelligence is an incredibly valuable offensive tool but it doesn’t put the puck in the net. That’s where Perfetti’s surrounding offensive attributes– his shooting, his playmaking– come in. All intelligence can do is create space and time; it’s up to his other abilities to take advantage of that space.

Even with his struggles in that area this season, Perfetti’s identity as he progresses through his career will be as a scorer. As we glimpsed at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, Perfetti has more than his fair share of talent as a shooter and scorer. Armed with quick hands and a lethal shooting arsenal, Perfetti is a talented, versatile scorer that could notch a consistent 30 goals at the NHL level.

With his five breakaway goal– two during the game, three in the shootout– performance against Sweden at August’s Hlinka Gretzky, there’s little doubt about Perfetti’s ability in one-on-one situations with the goaltender. Perfetti’s combination of puck skills and the ability to get quick shots gives him a wide variety of options in those scenarios. Let’s look at those five goals against Sweden:

Four of those five goals were scored on the forehand– three of them on similar looking moves, the other on a toe drag leading to a five-hole finish. This doesn’t seem crazy– most players would probably prefer to finish on their strong hand but Perfetti managed to sell the same goaltender on a similar move three times over the course of a game. We don’t see many players even get five one-on-one situations in the same game, but my sense is that very few players could pull that off. And that one time he didn’t go to the forehand? Probably my favourite move of all. It’s a simple play– forehand to backhand and a quick finish in tight. There’s not a lot of opportunity to make the goaltender go the wrong way, but he’s still able to create the space to finish on the far side.

Perfetti doesn’t have the same 100% success rate he did against Sweden on non-breakaway opportunities, but he’s shown the ability to be an effective scoring threat from the slot. From pick224.com, here’s his even-strength shot map from last season:

These maps (even-strength on the left, powerplay on the right) don’t always tell us a whole lot, but there a few things worth highlighting here. First of all– Perfetti didn’t score a single goal at even-strength from beyond the top of the circles. This is encouraging, especially considering Perfetti’s high shooting percentage (22%). He still probably scored a few more goals than he “deserved” but all of his tallies at even strength came from him attacking the slot area and putting the puck on net. A significant portion of his goals and shots came from the crease, which is exactly what we want to see. More high danger shots = more goals.

Perfetti owns a hard, accurate wrister that he uses to consistently challenge goaltenders. His release is devastating, creating explosive power with a quick transfer of weight as he drags the puck forwards. His shot is about as accurate as you’ll see; Perfetti possesses the consistent ability to find open twine and has the power on his shot to beat the goaltender. He’s a versatile scorer– referencing our heat map again, we can see that Perfetti scored from a variety of areas, including both sides of the ice. A left handed shot, he’s comfortable off both flanks, able to attack the net on his backhand from the right side of the ice. If you aren’t convinced, this absolutely nasty curl-and-drag snipe should do the trick:

perfettisnipe.gif

Perfetti has an outstanding one-timer, making him lethal from the right circle.  He gets a tremendous amount of power and accuracy on those shots, but most impressive is his versatility as a shooter from that spot. Even when the pass is in his skates, he’s able to shift his weight and get his stick on the puck. He got robbed by the Finnish goalie, but this shot is a nice example of how he’s able to drop a knee to get a hard shot on net even when the pass is a little out in front of him.

Even when it isn’t your traditional “one-timer”, Perfetti is still able to catch a pass and put a hard shot into the top corner before the goaltender can get across his net.

And when Perfetti doesn’t have a shooting lane, he has the hands and creativity to create one. There aren’t a lot of teams that will make it this easy to dangle right to the crease, but it takes a lot of skill to pull this off against any level of defence.

His shoot-first mentality is evident but Perfetti can be very effective as a second-valve playmaker. A product of his intelligence, Perfetti has tremendous vision and calmness with the puck; he’s able to draw defenders to him and dish the puck off to open areas. Interestingly enough, if you look back on the consensus around Perfetti from his OHL draft days, the buzz around him was more about his playmaking than his scoring. Obviously, his scoring ability has exceeded expectations from that point, but his playmaking ability that popped out to OHL scouts still exists.

His vision is exceptional– watch him put this drop pass right on the tape for a primary assist:

He can stretch it out over longer distances as well, like with this cross-seam diagonal connection right into Jacob Perrault’s wheelhouse at the Hlinka camp.

Perfetti has tons of offensive skill– there’s no questioning that. He has incredible upside as a dual-threat attacker, able to adapt to the defence and create offence in a multitude of ways. How far will that skillset take him?

Going into the season, I set out a projection for the next nine years of Perfetti’s career; going all the way up to his expected “peak” at 25 years old. I set expectations for Perfetti’s 2019-20 season at 1.40 points per game, which would be a similar historical rate of production to a group of players including Jeff Skinner, Logan Couture, Nazem Kadri, Matt Duchene, and Max Domi. Extending that projection to his 25 year old season, I came out with a projected peak output of 69 points per 82 games.

My eyes tell me that Perfetti’s likely outcome is a top line forward, and these numbers seem to back that up. And even better, Perfetti is outperforming expectations so far this season, raising his future outlook even higher. Moving forward as an attacker, Perfetti’s hallmark should be his versatility– the sheer volume of ways that he’s able to get the puck to dangerous areas and create offence. With his multi-faceted skillset, Perfetti projects as a first-instinct shooter that can drum things up as a perimeter playmaker when he’s unable to find space himself in the slot. I’m not sure he’ll be a driver in transition– his foot speed is unexceptional and that isn’t the role he’s undertaken on his line in Saginaw or at international events like the Hlinka-Gretzky– but he can dictate play once the puck gets into the offensive zone.

How high should he go at the 2020 NHL Draft? We at The Prospect Network had him 7th on our preliminary ranking for this year’s class. Perfetti finds himself at the same position on my personal list. I see him as the headlining prospect in a very deep third tier of this draft, sitting on the same level as players like Tim Stützle, Jamie Drysdale, and Marco Rossi. Ahead of him, I have the two Canadians– Lafrenière and Byfield– as well as the four big Europeans: Lucas Raymond, Anton Lundell, Noel Gunler, and Alexander Holtz. Lafrenière and Byfield are ripping up the CHL while the Euro quartet has similar talent as well as valuable, ever-increasing professional experience that gives them an edge.

As we track Perfetti’s season, it’s important that we remember two things:

  1.  Perfetti is an extremely talented hockey player with a bright future as a 70+ point contributor over the prime of his career.
  2. Perfetti’s dominance of the Hlinka was a small sample of strong play that tells us next to nothing about his actual level of impact and carries next to zero implications on his NHL career.

He’s going to be good, no doubt, but let’s keep our expectations in check.

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