As soon as Wednesday, there's a chance Matej Pekar could be shipped back to the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. But the celebrated gnat of the Buffalo Sabres' development camps and Prospect Challenges over the last 18 months will first get another watershed moment in his development tonight in Nationwide Arena.
Pekar will make his NHL preseason debut for the Sabres in the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, playing left wing on a line with veterans Vladimir Sobotka and Kyle Okposo.
"I had it in the back of my mind hoping for it and it's happening," Pekar, 19, said after today's morning skate in KeyBank Center. "I just have to be ready for it. This is the opportunity.
"I'm very excited. It's going to be fun. My first game in an actual NHL arena so it definitely will be fun. I'm just going to try to play my game and not really think about who I'm playing against or where I'm playing."
A fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft at Dallas, Pekar burst on to the scene at last year's development camp by driving Casey Mittelstadt crazy all over the ice – and by taking a huge hit from Rasmus Dahlin during a scrimmage that went viral. He quickly became a favorite of fans at LECOM Harborcenter and had the folks in his corner again this year during the prospect games.
"The energy he's shown in development and rookie camp was fun for me to see in action," said new coach Ralph Krueger. "All of us are looking forward to seeing him in a game at this next level. Tonight will be a good test for him. You'll see some penalty-killing time, the opportunity of him to bring that aggressive game into our mix."
Jokiharju appears to be an extra (played last night)
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) September 17, 2019
The Blue Jackets are not playing a top-shelf group of forwards but will be strong on defense with standouts Seth Jones and Zach Werenski scheduled to play. Niagara Falls native Adam Clendening, who played four games for Columbus and 45 for Cleveland of the AHL, is also in tonight's lineup on defense for the Blue Jackets.
"Doesn't matter who I play against. If something happens, it happens," Pekar said. "I'm just going to focus on my game and not worry about who is on the other side. These guys have been great, helping me a lot. Whatever I do, I try to take as much as I can from them and bring it to my game. They're experienced, with a lot of games in the NHL, and it's a great learning experience."
Krueger noted that sometimes no-names looking to make a name can be a bigger challenge than stars in the preseason. But the Sabres played an almost-entirely AHL lineup in last night's overtime win against the "Pittsburgh Penguins" (quotes intended) at Penn State, so it will be interesting to see how the Buffalo forwards match up.
"We're happy to see that there's some strong resistance tonight in Columbus," Krueger said. "This group that's playing tonight will be tested in a different way maybe than last night."
Krueger said tonight's game ends phase one of camp. With players off Wednesday, the staff will meet and some roster moves are likely. He said the next phase will end after Saturday's home game vs. Toronto as players are sent to the start of Rochester's camp next week. The final phase with the ultimate roster decisions comes after the preseason finale Sept. 28 in Pittsburgh.
"We don't feel a big need to cut the numbers down quickly here," Krueger said. "We do feel the group is learning a lot together so there's not big urgency in that right now.
"There's no question getting to know all these players so well for the long term is very helpful. Probably tomorrow your brain starts going more toward Oct. 3 (the season opener at Pittsburgh). I really tried in this phase to make this a teaching phase as best as possible where we bring our principles and concepts right through the depths of our organization."
— Brian Hedger (@BrianHedger) September 16, 2019