Matej Pekar was selected by the Buffalo Sabres with their fourth-round pick (94th overall) in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The six-foot, 170-pound Center from the Czech Republic has committed to play for Miami University (Ohio) next season.
Last year, the center had 14 goals and 40 assists in 56 games played for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL. The season also included a Hlinka Memorial silver medal, USHL All-Rookie Team honors, and being named USHL’s Rookie of the Year.
To learn more about Pekar, I reached out to Rachel Anderson, a writer for accesshockeymi.com who covers Muskegon, as well as Michal Kvasnica who plays for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL and is a friend of Pekar’s.
Kvasnica is a winger from the Czech Republic and was draft eligible in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. He was a teammate of Pekar’s on this year’s team that won the silver medal at the Hlinka tournament. In addition, he won the U20 Championship with the Czech Republic in 2016.
I asked each of them the same set of questions.
Q: What are your expectations for Matej?
Rachel: “When I started monitoring/watching the Lumberjacks, Pekar was one of the first to stand out to me and I expect he’ll do the same around the AHL and NHL - depending on his development plan. He’ll go far with how quick and precise he is with the puck and I don’t doubt that once he does hit NHL ice, he’ll make an immediate impact.”
Michal: “If you’re asking me about his near future, it’s difficult to say for me because I don’t know the current situation and strategy for the Sabres. But generally, what I can say about Matej because I know him already for some years, is that he is a very good and clever player and moreover with a big heart. He has the heart bigger than the rest of his body - I believe, you know what I mean. To be honest - Matej is my favorite friend.”
Q: Pekar mentioned he decided to come to the US and the USHL because he saw an opportunity for better exposure and competition. Can you describe play at the USHL level and do you agree with his assessment?
Rachel: “His decision to come to the US could, till now anyway, be one of his best junior career moves. Many international skaters come to the US for exposure, so it’s not uncommon for players his age to make that jump. It was a wise decision since the USHL as a whole, has a restriction on international players, making the group that is a part of the league, more visible to colleges and higher level scouts. He fit right in with the North American style of plat - which is a challenge for any international skater considering ice size and speed are very different.”
Michal: “You’re asking me for something that I am not able to judge. I have only a rough overview of the USHL, but when I see how much progress Matej made, it’s clear that the USHL is a very good league and did help him a lot. He had the advantage that he already two or three years in the US, so his adaptation was easier. Matej had a great season. The Rookie of the Year award wasn’t a coincidence.”
Q: Matej mentioned the trade to Muskegon motivated him and he saw it as a wake-up call. How did this affect his game?
Rachel: “It changed his on-ice mentality the most. He saw the need to “step up” his game and actually be intentional with every moment. To be traded in the USHL is hard on kids, especially the ones who aren’t from the US. It’s more adjustment, another billet family, and a whole new way of playing the game depending on the team. Pekar did an outstanding job adapting in Muskegon. Former coach, John LaFontaine, was able to find Pekar’s weaknesses and strengths early on and the staff did a wonderful job of guiding him on how to best use them Overall, Pekar’s trade turned out to be an advantage for him and the Lumberjacks.”
Michal: “As I already told you - Matej is a really clever guy. It’s not a question of Muskegon or some other team. It’s a question of Matej’s mind. I’m sure that he is able to recognize what is important and arrange his things accordingly. His performance is not a surprise for me.”
Q: He talked about playing on the first line allowed him to grow a lot as a player and gain confidence. He pretty much turned into a point-per-game player. Describe his development - he was pretty much used in every situation last year.
Rachel: “There were many nights where Pekar had two or three points in a game. Playing with the top, especially with then Captain, Anthony Del Gaizo, he really found his edge. Anthony provided a lot of the physical presence on the line, and Pekar became the sniper. He was what I’d call a “utility” player. He was able to mesh into any circumstance and create momentum when needed. From his start with Muskegon to the end of the season, Pekar’s confidence and decision making became his greatest asset.”
Michal: “Because Matej did play in the USHL and I play in Europe, we haven’t had many chances to see each other. We played in August in the Hlinka Memorial Cup and then in the Five Nations Cup in Plymouth in February. He was great in both, but in Plymouth was even better. His new experiences and confidence were clearly visible. I like to play with him on one line.”
Q: In order to create offense, he likes to be the annoying guy and get under other players skin. What is his style - physical player or a hard-working forward who forechecks well?
Rachel: “He definitely braces the “annoying guy” style of play - but can also score - not just be a nuisance. He uses his size, being that he’s still quite small, to his advantage to squeeze himself into scums along the boards. I often caught opposing defenseman skating in circles confused while Pekar was halfway down the ice. He is an aggressive forechecker thanks in large part to his speed. He’s very fast and can outskate pretty much everyone.”
Michal: “This is exactly about him. He must be very annoying for the opponents. If I could compare him from this point of view I would say - Brad Marchand. Only I never saw him licking somebody! In any case, it’s always better to have him on my team.”
Q: He’s already received some honors in the USHL. He was voted by the Hockey News as having the best motor and was voted by the GM’s as Rookie of the Year joining Andrei Svechnikov who won it the year prior. What does Matej need to do/continue to do in order to take the next step in his career?
Rachel: “He has deserved every honor that is for sure! Svechnikov was a Muskegon Lumberjack as well, which brings a lot of pride to us West Michigan folks! Pekar just needs to keep doing what he has been - working as hard off the ice as he is on the ice. He’ll put on weight over time, which is a must to be a contender as he gets older. Aside from that, if he can keep his confidence up and continue to drive hard at the net like he always has, he’ll be in good shape for many more productive seasons.”
Michal: “I’m not sure if I can advise him. Simply, he should continue the journey which he has chosen. Seem’s it’s the right way.”
Thank you to both Rachel and Michal for providing their insight.