Thursday, August 23, 2018

Sabres find plenty of character, and a character, in Matej Pekar. Pt. 1

Published by 8-21-2018

When Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula talked about "adding discipline, structure, communication and character" to the organization after firing general manager Tim Murray in 2017, he emphasized "we have to have character." Jason Botterill, the man he hired to replace Murray, is also a firm believer in character as a foundational building block. Prior to his first draft as a GM, Botterill talked with the hosts of The Instigators on his approach to selecting players that particular word came up numerous times.

"Let's be honest," he told the hosts back in 2017, "there's an element of luck (to the draft) but there also needs to be a structure to it. That's why it's so key, finding certain elements in the character aspect. You're picking a player when they're 17 or 18 yrs. old, they're not a finished product. There's much for them to do. Their drive off the ice, their willingness to improve their game in the weight room or on the ice. These are key attributes.

"You're not going to be perfect," he continued, "maybe they're not always going to be the most high-end guys, but you've got to find those character guys who are going to be willing to put the work in."

It took Botterill a year to get his scouting staff in place and 2018 looks to be a banner draft, especially when you have a defenseman like Rasmus Dahlin, who combines high-end skill and high character, at the top. Fourth round pick Matej (pronounced, meh-tay) Pekar from the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL may not have the high-end skills of a Dahlin, but the 94th-overall selection has that character Botterill was looking for. And what we've come to find out since his selection, he's also a bit of a character as well.

At his post-draft presser, Botterill said of Pekar, "What we like about him is his tenacity, his ability to skate, his ability to get on the forecheck.

"Our guys talked about his style of play, relentless on the forecheck, getting after it," continued Botterill to the gathered media. "He's underdeveloped from a physical standpoint but everything we've heard from behind the scenes is that he's working very hard at that and that will continue to develop over the next little bit."

New Lumberjacks head coach Mike Hamilton was "behind the scenes" last year as an assistant in Muskegon and when I talked to him last week her relayed the same thing to me about Pekar via a phone conversation.  He called the 18 yr. old left-winger a "meat and potatoes guy, with no ego to him who's going to show up to work every day."

Hamilton was just promoted to head coach after being a part-time assistant coach with the Lumberjacks for the last five years. A native of Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan just north of Detroit, Hamilton spent years coaching youth hockey with the HoneyBaked youth hockey program on the east side of the state and also played for Minnesota State University. Hamilton's connections with the Lumberjacks run deep. His son Trevor, who just signed with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, also played at Muskegon and Hamilton had played junior hockey under John LaFontaine, the coach he replaced. He was involved with Dan Israel's purchase of the team.

LaFontaine had done some nice work in Muskegon coaching them to a 70-43-7 mark over his two seasons there which included setting a franchise record for most points in a season in 2016-17. Andrei Svechnikov, the second-overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, lead that record setting team with 29 goals and 58 points in 48 games while on his way to being named USHL rookie of the year. LaFontaine's team added another ROY honor the following season when Pekar was named the league's top rookie. Unfortunately, Muskegon was ousted in the first round in both of those seasons and LaFontaine was replaced by Hamilton.

Hamilton had nothing but high praise for LaFontaine, telling me that his predecessor "may have sacrificed some wins for [player] development, but he did his players great things by developing them and teaching them the right way to play the game." A total of five Lumberjacks were taken at the 2018 NHL Draft lead by Svechinkov, who played for Barrie of the OHL last season. Pekar was joined by team mates Jachym Kondelik (111th, NSH,)  Mikael Hakkarainen (139th, CHI) and Emilio Pettersen (167th, CGY.)

Both Hamilton and LaFontaine were effusive in their praise of Pekar's work ethic and willingness to do whatever it took for team success. LaFontaine called him "the ultimate team player" with "a passion and work ethic that's above the charts." Hamilton said, "when there was ice, he was always first on the ice, last off it on a daily basis" and that Pekar "works and pushes and wants more and wants to get better. Wanting more instruction, wanting more video, wanting more analysis" calling him a "phenomenal young man" and adding that, "when people would call, it was almost as if we were giving them a line of B.S. because there's not a lot of bad things to say about Matej."

The coaches pointed to Pekar's difficult journey from the Czech Republic to NHL Draft as a driving force to his overall disposition. Pekar came to North America at the age of 14, played travel hockey with Tier-2 level Jimmy Johns jumped up the U-16 Tier-1 Elite Hockey League with the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies before getting drafted by the Chicago Steele in the third round (46th) of the USHL Draft. After not making the team out of camp, Pekar was traded to the Lumberjacks for Cole Kodsi who was a 16th round pick of the Lumberjacks.

"I didn't even make the 30-man roster (in Chicago,)" Pekar told me. "Fortunately they traded me to Muskegon which was even better for me."

LaFontaine pointed to Pekar and his hockey journey as someone who's "appreciative of what he's got," one who "stays humble, stays working, maybe because he didn't have everything handed to him and seemed to appreciate every step of the way."

When Pekar joined LaFontaine and the Lumberjacks he didn't know what to expect. "I was super nervous because I didn't make the Chicago team," he said. "I just tried to work hard and play the way I could play and try to prove myself to the coaches."

Pekar did make the team and started out at left wing on the second and third lines during exhibition games and played the first game of the season on the third line. Prior to the second game he got the opportunity to skate with the top line because of some lobbying on the part of a couple team mates. "The guys told me that Jachym (Kondelik) asked the coach if he could try putting two Czechs together to see how it works," he said.

"I would say two team mates," recalled LaFontaine. "At the time on our first line was a fellow countryman (Kondelik,) he was in his second year for us and our leading scorer Anthony Del Gaizo. They played together a week or two and they asked if they could try Matej on the line.

"Once we moved [Pekar] there, he never left the top line."

Pekar willfully and gratefully did a lot of the dirty work on that line going into the corners and fishing out the puck despite being a lengthy, skinny, somewhat scrawny kid who got pushed off the puck a lot. At least early on. But he was never afraid nor discouraged. According to LaFontaine said Pekar worked at it and figured out how play in those tight areas. That maneuvering lead to 40 assists which was tops amongst rookies and third in the league while his linemate Del Gaizo lead the league with 40 goals.

"He was a surprise for our whole staff last year in regards to how many points he really did put up ," said Hamilton of Pekar. "We knew he was a good player, but on a team that was that deep in high-end talent, we were absolutely surprised with a rookie coming in and putting up as many points as he did."

Pekar finished the season with 54 points which tied him amongst rookies with projected 2019 top overall pick, Jack Hughes.

After playing set-up man for the first 29 games of the season with 20 assists and only five goals, Pekar began to gain more confidence shooting and scoring while also continuing to rack up assists. He upped his goal-total to nine in the last 27 games of the season and could have had more according to the coaches saying he was unselfish to the point where he'd pass up an opportunity of his own to set up a team mate. Maybe passing up a little too many.

"During the middle of the season he was passing up too many opportunities to score himself," said LaFontaine. "He was playing with older players and he just wanted to please them. They got on his case and as coaches we told him it's time to be a little more selfish and he started putting the puck in the net which was great to see."

When asked if it was difficult for Pekar to make that transition into more of a scorer, LaFontaine said that it took a while for him to build up confidence. According to the coach, Pekar knew he was passing up shots, he just didn't have any confidence at all in his shooting ability but he worked at it. "He didn't want to let his linemates down," said the LaFontaine, "so like he's accustomed to doing, he put extra time in the weaknesses of his game, which was finishing, and by the end of the year it began to turn into a strength."

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