Several Canadian major junior organizations would have liked to add Lightning prospect Matthew Peca to their roster in the last few years.
Peca, a seventh-round pick in 2011, instead chose to attend Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT and it’s looking like that will be his only stop on the way to a professional contract.
After a standout freshman season with the Bobcats, in which the 5 foot 9, 165-pound center produced eight goals and 31 assists in 39 games on the top line, Peca seems to have found a springboard in the ECAC.
“College hockey was right for me,” said Peca, from Petawawa, Ontario. “With the extra time, I have had a chance to add some strength and size in the weight room. I don’t plan on leaving. I love it there.”
Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said Peca gained 11 pounds of muscle in his first four weeks of the weight-training program. Major junior doesn’t offer as much time with off-ice work because there are more games, which has made college hockey more attractive for many talented, under-sized players.
Pecknold knew he had a skillful offensive player coming in, but he said Peca was one of the best all-around freshmen in the league and the country.
“The thing that was really a pleasant surprise was how quickly he picked up the other little things his first season,” Pecknold said. “He was very reliable defensively and an excellent penalty killer. We had the No. 2 penalty-killing unit in the country and he was a part of it. Three on five, he was our first forward over the boards, winning face-offs. He was an 18-year old kid playing against 22-23 year olds and he was dominant.”
Peca played primarily with twin brothers Kellen and Connor Jones, who had 36 and 41 points respectively. Kellen is a 2010 seventh-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, Connor was third-team All-ECAC and Peca made the league’s all-rookie team.
Lightning Development Coordinator Steve Thomas said Peca is good along the wall and sacrifices his body to get the puck out when he needs to, despite his size.
“He’s so quick and he’s got such good balance,” Pecknold said. “He wins a ton of battles against bigger players. You’d think he’d get knocked around, but it just doesn’t happen. He plays big for his size.”
Matt Peca watches on during a skills drill at Development Camp.
Peca, whose rights are currently owned by Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League, said it was an easy transition for him at Quinnipiac. He could sense that as soon as he arrived.
He said the competition in college hockey tested him, especially in the ECAC wars.
“It’s fast and it’s gritty, which is what I expected,” Peca said. “You’re not going to get many shots. You have to be creative.”
Pecknold said Peca was a pass first/shoot second player as a freshman. Peca plans on challenging himself to have a better balance during the 2012-13 season.
“Everything needs to be better,” Peca said. “I’ll focus on getting pucks to the net, shooting more and trying to create more scoring opportunities for myself and my teammates.”
Peca, an Athletic Training major at Quinnipiac, caught the eye of Lightning scouts while playing for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Tier I Central Junior Hockey League (CJHL). The league changed its name to the Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL) in 2010-11. Peca stood out with 72 points in 50 regular-season games his last season at Pembroke, leading the Lumber Kings to the league title and the Royal Bank Cup -- which determines the Canadian Junior A champion.
The Windsor Spitfires of the OHL first drafted Peca, then traded his rights to Kingston before he was claimed on waivers by Kitchener. Other teams were also rumored to be interested in acquiring Peca.
“I had some interesting looks,” Peca said. “Ultimately, the college route is best-suited for me.”
Peca said he learned just as much this year at Lightning Development Camp as he did in his first appearance in 2011. Thomas was impressed with his progress this season, summing it up simply -- “he’s going to be a player.”
“He’s an A+ kid off the ice,” Pecknold said. “He has great grades and there’s tons of character there. The Lightning have themselves a fantastic prospect.”