DALLAS – Matej Pekar’s smile told the story. In the moments after the Buffalo Sabres drafted the Czech winger in the fourth round, 94th overall, Saturday, it never left his face.
About 10 months ago, the NHL Draft wasn’t exactly on Pekar’s radar.
“Before the season, I was like, ‘Draft, what is it? I’m not going to get drafted,’” Pekar said inside American Airlines Center.
So sitting at a table wearing a blue Buffalo Sabres jersey and cap answering questions about his career was a bit surreal for Pekar, the junior United States Hockey League’s top rookie in 2017-18.
“I wouldn’t have imagined I would be sitting in this chair and giving interviews for Buffalo media and the NHL,” Pekar said. “I can’t really explain it. I’m so excited to be here, get drafted. It all starts right now.”
Pekar’s strong season with the Muskegon Lumberjacks caught the eyes of NHL scouts. But months earlier, getting traded from the Chicago Steel before he ever played a game for the club jolted him.
“It was definitely a wake-up call,” Pekar said.
He said getting dished motivated him to “look in the mirror and just say, ‘You can do it, but you just have to work harder.’”
Right away, former Lumberjacks coach John LaFontaine ignited Pekar’s confidence, placing him on the top line beside Anthony Del Gaizo and Mikael Hakkarainen. The new linemates quickly morphed into a lethal scoring trio.
“I stayed with those guys for the next maybe 50 games, which was really good,” said Pekar, who scored 14 goals and 54 points in 56 games. “My teammates helped me a lot, taught (me) many, many skills that I didn’t have. I thought I became more mature.”
About one quarter into the season, Pekar, 18, said he realized getting drafted was a possibility.
“This might happen, just like keep at it, don’t slow down, keep rolling,” he said he told himself.
What kind of prospect do the Sabres possess in the 6-foot, 170-pound Pekar?
“I’m a hardworking forward that gets the puck off the forecheck and set up my teammates for scoring chances and kind of sees the ice well,” said Pekar, who plans to play at Miami University in Ohio next season.
Former NHL goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, Muskegon’s general manager last season, said Pekar’s hard to put into one category because he does a little bit of everything.
“He’s such a hardworking, playmaking type of player,” Vanbiesbrouck said.
The honesty Pekar displayed illustrates his thoughtful personality, Vanbiesbrouck said.
“He’s very appreciative, very humble,” he said. “He’s come a long way in a short period of time. So he’s a creative kid, he draws well, he’s got some unique qualities to him. I think his personality is just so infectious. He’s a friend to everybody, not critical about anything. He never has a down day.”
Pekar, who said he played a game four years ago at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, clearly feels comfortable with the Sabres.
When Pekar told Buffalo’s draft contingent how excited his father would be over his selection, he said some of them remembered his dad was wearing “funny” Detroit Red Wings pajama pants when they saw him at a tournament.
“They were like, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get him a new pair of Sabres ones,’” Pekar said. “So that was kind of cool they remembered my dad, too.”
The Sabres will introduce defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall pick Friday, at KeyBank Center this morning.
Jim Gregory, who started announcing picks and trades at the NHL Draft in 1980, received a stirring standing ovation from the draft floor and crowd Saturday when it was announced it would be his last year.
The Hall of Famer will continue in his role as the NHL’s vice president of hockey operations.