📝 by Patrick Williams
Rochester Americans head coach Seth Appert never hesitates to emphasize that the Buffalo Sabres’ rebuilding program will have deep American Hockey League roots.
Hired by Buffalo in August 2020, Appert came to Western New York with a clear mandate from Buffalo management – convert NHL draft picks into NHL players. Appert brought a lengthy coaching resume with him to that task, having spent 20 years behind NCAA benches followed by three seasons at the storied United States National Team Development Program.
Two of those key pieces for Buffalo now in Rochester and playing for Appert are wings Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka. Quinn, taken by the Sabres eighth overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, just turned 20 last month. Peterka, who followed Quinn a round later in that same draft haul, is taking on the North American game – and life – at age 19.
“They’re two very talented players [who] both have a very high work ethic,” Appert told Rochester reporters after a 5-3 win this past Friday in the Amerks’ home opener against the Syracuse Crunch.
The pair, anchored by ultra-reliable center Sean Malone, put on a show in a pair of Rochester victories. Quinn, a right-handed shot and still filling out at 6-foot, 176 pounds, can play the wing and has also been used at center. The speedy left-shot Peterka is 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, and uses that sturdy frame to fish out loose pucks.
“I think any time you have chemistry with a line,” Quinn said, “you’re pretty much twice the player and have twice the opportunities, so I think that’s a huge thing for offensive players. [We] work really well together, and it’s exciting because…I think we can build a lot.”
With Rochester holding a 2-1 lead on the Crunch deep into the second period on Friday, Peterka and Quinn combined on a heavy forecheck that forced a turnover behind the Syracuse net. Quinn moved into the low left circle while Peterka won the puck. Peterka then sent a pass to Quinn, who slipped a shot between goaltender Hugo Alnefelt’s pads.
“His legs are special,” Appert said of Peterka. “They’re world-class.”
The Amerks took it to 4-1 in the third period when Peterka arrived hard on a puck in the corner and put a feed into the slot that Malone then roofed past Alnefelt. With Syracuse then threatening at 4-2, heavy pressure on the points from Peterka and Quinn forced a turnover that led to an empty-net goal to finish off the Rochester win. Peterka and Quinn each finished with a goal and a pair of assists.
Roughly 18 hours and a bus ride later in Toronto, the pair frustrated the Marlies as Rochester hammered out a 4-0 first-period lead. In the second minute of the game, Peterka sped down left boards before Quinn snuck into the slot and then banged in his own rebound past Erik Källgren off a pass from Peterka.
Then 40 seconds after Rochester had taken a 3-0 first-period lead, Peterka outraced Toronto’s Filip Král to a loose puck behind the net and backhanded a pass to the low slot, where Quinn slipped past three defenders and beat Källgren. From there the Amerks raced away to a 7-3 win to sweep their weekend.
Peterka and Quinn have a chance to do more damage as the Amerks face another busy week, first heading north for a layover with the Belleville Senators on Wednesday night. A pair of games at the Laval Rocket follow, starting Friday at Place Bell. Quinn is in a third-place tie in AHL scoring at six points (and tied for the AHL lead at four goals) in three games. Peterka sits one point behind with five points (one goal, four assists) in his three contests.
Despite Peterka’s youth, he brought solid pro experience with him to Rochester, having played parts of two seasons in Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga with his hometown EHC Red Bull Munich. Last season he went on loan to Red Bull Salzburg in Austria before rejoining Munich and finishing with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 30 regular-season games.
But he had a quiet opening to his AHL career, a 6-2 loss to the Utica Comets loss in the season opener Oct. 17. So Appert sat down with Peterka, discussed what need to change, and the youngster responded. Making adjustments is part of that AHL experience that the Sabres want for their prospects.
Said Appert, “I think it was just a good learning lesson of how hard the American League is, how physical it is, how demanding it is. Everybody is fighting, scrapping, and clawing to either get to the NHL or to stay in this league. JJ’s a competitor and knows he didn’t have his best performance.”
As for Quinn, he spent last season with the Amerks as a 19-year-old before a season-ending injury, playing 15 games, finishing with nine points (two goals, seven assists), and enduring the necessary struggles and growing pains that any prospect faces. Last season’s lessons gave Quinn plenty with which to work in the offseason. He made his skating a focus, particularly his edge work. Generating a quicker shot release also figured into that offseason plan.
“Obviously I struggled a bit,” Quinn said of his rookie season. “It was nowhere near where I wanted to be, but in the 15 games I think I learned a lot about the league and was able to have a lot better for mindset this year. What I’m trying to do is get back to how I scored in [junior] by getting to the dirty areas and all that stuff, all the little habits. Just having 15 games last year allow me to have a better look on things.”
A key piece of the line is a Malone, a 26-year-old who returned to the Buffalo organization this summer after a one-season stop with the Nashville Predators. Last season with the Chicago Wolves, Malone played alongside a potent group of prospects, giving him experience in how to bring along young teammates.
Offered Quinn, “I think Malone maybe gets overlooked a bit, because me and JJ are top prospects, but you know, he’s kind of the glue of the line. He is so good out there, and we definitely wouldn’t kind of have the connection we do without him in the middle.
“He’s super smart, super competitive, so he gets us the puck. He makes great plays, and just as a leader and a teammate, he drags us into the fight with his competitiveness. As young guys, I think we kind of see how intense he is and how competitive he is, and we want to match that so that all three of us are super into the game. I think that goes a long way, too.”
Said Malone of that Chicago experience, “I was a bit of an older guy, even in my fourth year last year. We had a ton of young prospects and a lot of guys in and out of the lineup. So I took on more of a leadership role last year and really enjoyed it.
“You know, we talk about it all the time. It’s a development league, but at the same time you want to put your best foot forward every day and get better. You want to win at the same time. It helps everybody. You only get so many cracks at it as a prospect, and you want those guys to take on the opportunity when it’s there.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.