BUFFALO – Technically, Judd Peterson still belonged to the Sabres, but the NHL club wasn’t too interested in evaluating the St. Cloud State University forward.
Just a year ago, Peterson appeared to have no future with the organization that had drafted him out of high school in the seventh round, 204th overall, in 2012.
After participating in two development camps run by the team’s old regime, Peterson, 22, wasn’t invited back in 2014 or 2015 by general manager Tim Murray’s crew.
“You come out here your first two years and don’t get invited back, in a way, it’s kind of embarrassing, you know?” Peterson said Saturday after starring in the Blue and Gold development camp scrimmage inside HarborCenter. “You don’t want to be drafted and then don’t even get a shot.”
So Peterson, who had lost his confidence, said he recommitted himself and spent two summers working toward getting back on Buffalo’s radar.
“They finally gave me an opportunity,” he said.
Actually, Peterson earned his opportunity.
Following a disappointing four-goal, seven-point freshman campaign in 2014-15 – “I just wasn’t producing, I wasn’t doing anything,” he said – Peterson hit the five-goal mark in his fifth game last season.
Peterson said he stopped overthinking and began playing more instinctively and skating. The scorching start helped his confidence balloon. He finished with 16 goals and 23 points in 38 contests.
“That was a good part of what people have been waiting to see from Judd from the last few years,” St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko said. “He really put himself back on the radar.”
Early in Saturday’s scrimmage before about 1,600 fans, Peterson ignited Team Blue’s 5-3 win, setting up Nick Baptiste’s opening goal with a quick pass in the slot before burying a rebound to make it 2-0.
While other prospect performances might garner more attention – first-rounder Alexander Nylander wowed the crowd with three dynamic shootout goals and Williamsville’s Justin Bailey often dominated – Peterson was one of the best players on the ice.
“He did exactly what he had been doing all week – skating, he was hounding pucks, he was in on forechecks, he was in on opportunities,” said Rochester Americans coach Dan Lambert, who led Team Blue. “It was a great day for him.”
The day allowed Peterson, who played two junior seasons in the United States Hockey League before joining St. Cloud, to think positively about his future.
“You’re always thinking that, ‘What if in a couple years I’m in this organization playing in Rochester or Buffalo?’” he said.
Seventh-round picks, of course, are longshots to make the NHL. The last one to play for the Sabres was winger Mark Mancari, a 2004 selection good enough to receive 36 games.
But if Peterson keeps improving, the Sabres might sign him someday. He possesses notable speed and can play center or the wing (he was mostly in the middle last season). He also kills penalties and skates on the power play.
Motzko said Peterson morphed from a “one-way forward” into a two-way presence last season.
“You’re starting to wonder if he was going to be an offensive guy or he was going to be a defensive specialist, and last year he kind of (did) both for great stretches,” Motzko said. “The biggest thing, he had a smile on his face about his game, he played with confidence and we watched him kind of blossom into something we haven’t seen in a while.”
Nylander proved why some have said he is the most skilled player in the 2016 NHL Draft, scoring two slick penalty-shot goals – those were rewarded instead of a power play – and another nifty one in an end-of-game shootout.
The Swedish winger didn’t merely zoom down the ice and shoot; on each goal, he showcased some supremely soft hands and quick stickhandling moves.
The fans, many of whom paid $20 to see Nylander put on a show, loved every goal.
“I think I’ve been pretty good in shootouts since I’ve always been in competition in practices with my buddies or with my brother playing two-puck,” Nylander said. “I don’t know, I think I got a little lucky and it was just fun that I got all three in.”