Buffalo Sabres prospect Matej Pekar can’t explain how he developed the agitating style that makes him one of junior hockey’s foremost pests.
“Maybe I was just born with that,” said the Czech center. “I don’t know, it’s kind of my nature, maybe sometimes I’m super-competitive. Hockey’s a physical sport. As long as it’s nothing dirty, I think there’s nothing wrong with that.”
A mix of tenacity and skill has helped Pekar, 19, become one of the OHL’s top talents. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder thrives on contact. Instead of making a fancy play, Pekar would rather barrel through opponents. “Just not a perfect play kind of guy,” he said. “More like a straightforward, take it to the net and see what happens.”
In addition to being a rat, Pekar has morphed into a lethal scorer with the Barrie Colts, producing 28 goals and 63 points in his first 54 games with the team. This season, he’s tried to become more of a shooter. “I’m trying to have at least four, five shots a game,” he said.
Pekar will play a key role at the World Junior Championship in his native Czech Republic after representing his country at the 2019 tournament. The Czechs haven’t won a medal since earning bronze in 2005, and Pekar, who said the “whole country” will be watching, wants to help lead the resurgence. “That would be something I would never forget, especially if we get a medal,” he said. “It has been a long time for our country. I would love to be a part of the group that would turn it around. I can’t imagine how much fun it’s going to be to play in front of the home crowd.”
In the near future, fans in Buffalo could be his home crowd. Pekar, a fourth-round pick (94th overall) in 2018, ranks among the Sabres’ top prospects. Buffalo gave Pekar a long look in camp this year, even awarding him his first NHL exhibition appearance. “It definitely helped me a lot,” Pekar said. “It showed me how pro hockey is actually played.
“If I want to play at the next level, I have to play the right way, I have to play in all three zones. That definitely gave me a good reality check on how guys are great not only in the offensive zone but also in the ‘D’ and neutral zone.” – Bill Hoppe
The Stakes will be high for the Czech Republic, who host the tournament for the first time since 2008. They also haven’t won a medal since 2005, so perhaps history lessons aren’t the best way to drum up positive vibes here.
Luckily, the Czechs have an ace in net with Anaheim Ducks prospect Lukas Dostal. He was one of the best netminders in the tournament last year and returns with even more pro experience under his belt as he’s now in his second year with Ilves in Finland. The Czechs are in a Group of Death, so beating upstart Germany is of the utmost importance. If they can do that, perhaps a quarterfinal upset can be fashioned with the backing of a raucous home crowd.
Up front, the Czechs will return a couple of nasty, hard-to-play against characters in Matej Pekar (BUF) and Jakub Lauko (BOS), plus talented Arizona Coyotes pick Jan Jenik, who has been on fire for OHL Hamilton. New faces to watch include Chicago Blackhawks prospect Michal Teply and Edmonton Oilers pick Matej Blumel. Undrafted center Petr Cajka of the Swiss League’s Geneve-Servette has been very good internationally for the Czechs, and his responsible game will act as a safety net for the team.
The entire defense corps from 2019 must be replaced, but given how unremarkable that group was, it’s not much of a loss. Washington Capitals pick Martin Hugo Has brings great size and mobility, while undrafted Libor Zabransky, who has played for several WHL squads in the past year-and-a-quarter, was captain of the Czech’s under-18 squad in 2017-18.
This iteration of the Czechs doesn’t have the star power of past years, but maybe that’s a good thing. There will already be pressure to perform in front of the home crowd, and there’s no need to heighten expectations further for what looks like a middle-of-the-pack team. – Ryan Kennedy
THN’s ODDS FOR GOLD: 20-1