Buffalo Sabres prospect JJ Peterka is a unicorn.
Is that the weirdest sentence you’ve read in a while? Stay with me here. I promise this isn’t some random children’s fantasy book about dragons and castles.
Michael Peca, who has served as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Rochester Americans and worked with Sabres prospects at the team’s recent development camp, called Peterka a ‘unicorn,’ noting his unique skillset and abilities.
“I view him as a unicorn,” Peca said. “I can’t find anybody I’ve ever played with or against, even in today’s game, that resembles the type of player he can become.”
Coming from a seasoned veteran who has been around the league since 1993 in various capacities, skated in over 800 NHL games & played with Pavel Bure, Trevor Linden, Pat LaFontaine & Alexei Yashin and against Teemu Selanne, Keith Tkachuk & Sergei Fedorov, and who won Olympic gold and two Selke trophies.... that’s incredibly high praise.
Last season was Peterka’s first in North America, which understandably comes with its own challenges and need for transitioning from the European style of the game. After being drafted in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, Peterka split his post-draft between EHC Red Bull München and EC Red Bull Salzburg.
His transition to the North American game in the AHL may not have been the quickest to some, but he certainly got there. Peterka ended the season with nearly a point-per-game average: 68 points in 70 regular season games. It was good enough for 10th among all players in the league in scoring, and top amongst rookies.
“JJ took a while,” Peca said. “I think he only had three goals through his first 20 or 25 games. He started to understand the things that we were trying to teach him as a staff, and next thing you know... I think he ended up with maybe four, five or six hat tricks at the end of the season.”
Peterka actually had four goals through his first 20 games, and five through his first 25. He ended the season with two hat tricks in the regular season and one more in the playoffs.
In the midst of the season, he also got his first call-up to the NHL as a result of several Sabres players going into COVID protocol. Peterka skated in two games with the Sabres on December 29 & 30. He was kept off the scoresheet, but tallied three shots and played just over 16 minutes each night.
When Peterka spoke at this summer’s Sabres development camp, he expressed how those two games helped him see the difference between the NHL and the AHL, and where he needed to get to in order to reach the NHL. As a result, his game grew.
Prior to the call-up, Peterka recorded 20 points in 23 games, an average of 0.869 PPG. Upon his return to the AHL, he recorded 48 points in the remaining 47 regular-season games, an average of 1.02 PPG. Then, he averaged over a point-per-game in the Calder Cup Playoffs, including a four-point performance in a critical win.
“He’s an impressive young man,” Peca went on to say about Peterka. “The thing I spent the most time with him on is just having him understand how much he can impact the game without scoring, without getting on the scoresheet.”
“He’s incredibly fast, powerful, instinctual,” Peca added. “He became one of our best penalty-killers. At the start of the season, we never expected him to ever be able to kill penalties. That’s how far he grew in his understanding of how impactful he can be without the puck and without scoring.”
His impact was certainly felt throughout the season, even when he wasn’t scoring. Look at it this way: he was involved in 70 of the Amerks’ 254 goals-for, nearly 28 percent. Twenty-six of his 40 assists were primary helpers. Penalty-killing is a harder stat to quantify in the AHL, given the league’s limited public statistics, but as a whole, it’s easy to see Peterka’s skill and depth.
“You try and pass that message along. You’re going to be in the National Hockey League. You might have to play on the third line, and you might not be on the power play,” Peca said. “We talked about this, and Donny [Granato]’s talked about this in some of the chats we’ve had. How are you going to impact your team? How are you going to help your team win hockey games? How are you going to stay in the lineup?”
“As time went on, they [Peterka, Quinn] slowly started understanding it,” he added. “With JJ in particular, there was a lot of video. Even in games early in the season, he’d be upset and frustrated. But then you show him things that he did, that had nothing to do with us scoring a goal, but that helped prevent one, or helped us win a hockey game. As time went on, he grew and matured and understood those things.”
Peterka’s growth over the last year has been clearly evident, and his potential is sky-high. He will undoubtedly make Don Granato’s job difficult in the coming months, as he’ll fight for a well-deserved roster spot in Buffalo at the beginning of the 2022-23 NHL season. Regardless of where he finds himself in the end, he’ll be an offensive powerhouse and continue to grow, mature and get even better in the years to come.