By Warren Kozireski —
The last time the Rochester Americans had an AHL Rookie of the Year was 1999-2000 when goaltender Mika Noronen took home the award. The last time an Amerks forward was honored was way back in 1989-90 with Donald Audette. (Note: the Sabres organization had three forwards back-to-back from 2008-09 to 2010-11 in Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis and Luke Adam, but their prospects were housed in Portland, Maine at the time).
This could be the season the drought ends as Jack Quinn stands second in the league in points despite missing the last four games in January due to injury with more coming. Brandon Biro, who played 15 games with Rochester last season due to injury, still qualifies as a rookie and he stands tied for ninth in the league with 25 points.
But odds are that the player with the best shot this season is right wing JJ Peterka.
Fifth in the league with 31 points over his first 31 games, the Munich, Germany native is also tied for third in the circuit among rookies with 23 assists.
After missing five games in January due to Covid, Peterka has picked right back up where he left off with two goals and three assists in four games as the schedule turned into February.
“With players going up it opened up a window for me to play more minutes and I was fortunate to play well for a couple of weeks and I’m just trying to keep the confidence going,” Peterka said in late January.
Peterka has already registered three, three-point games but is very unassuming about his numbers.
“Some of those days I put something on the net and we score so sometimes you get bounces and other days you might have a couple nice plays but hit the crossbar. We have a great power play unit…and we have a nice chemistry going on.”
Some of Peterka’s quick development can also be attributed to the Sabres top prospects all on the same roster and fighting for top line status and power play time.
“Internal competition is healthy…not pitting them against each other, but how healthy competition in practice and the weight room on a daily basis and games pushes elite players to become special,” Rochester head coach Seth Appert said. “I think it’s important to have, not only in our young guys, but throughout our lineup.
“JJ is a dynamic offensive player that is just starting his North American pro career and understanding how important puck battles and backchecking and these things are.”
Watch Peterka during warmups and he is a whirling dervish working on stick-handing drills in the neutral ice area in between line rushes and sometimes kicking the puck to himself before working on cross-ice one-timers with a teammate later.
“I think I’m more comfortable in the battles and I think I’m using my stick a little bit more and trying to outsmart when I see the opportunity,” Peterka said. “I feel like they are trusting me more and I’m just trying to keep it going.
“I get frustrated when we play well but can’t get the puck in the net, but we try to stay positive and play the same way the whole game,” Peterka self-analyzed.
The 5’11”, 192 lb. just turned 20-year-old was chosen in the second round of the 2020 NHL draft (34th overall) and quickly affirmed Buffalo’s decision to select him with four goals in seven games with Team Germany at the 2020 Under-20 World Juniors. That same season he registered 20 points in 30 games in the German men’s league with another ten points in five games at the 2021 World Juniors midway through the year.
“With JJ and Linus (Weissbach) I think we all play a pretty similar game—we all are pretty quick and we like to make plays and not dump it (in) if we don’t have to,” Peterka’s common linemate Brandon Biro said. “I think our games really compliment each other well. We’re always looking to find each other, so the three of us like to use our skill and we like to use our speed and I think we’ve been creating a lot of chances using our speed and making plays.”
Often this season, the Rochester coaching staff has placed a veteran on a line with two prospects such as Peterka, Quinn or Peyton Krebs, but they have occasionally had all three play together.
“We thought it would be good to have veterans with them, but there was a discussion on our staff to give it a try and I’m sure they are excited for those opportunities,” Appert said. “They have to earn the right to continue to play together.
“People write about the games where he gets multiple points, but his willingness to compete for the puck, to forecheck, to backcheck, things that he is going to have to do to be a great NHL player.”
(Rochester Amerks Photo)