The weird thing about lockouts is how hockey time seems to stand still. And yet, even as we double down on "other" sports and try to find entertainment in life that isn't punctuated by the dulcet tones of Dean Brown's "SCRAMBLLLLLLE", hockey stuff is still happening. Albeit, on a different scale. Leaders of labour and league flirt with each other and, in turn, our feelings. Twitter types (I'm among them) turn minor quibbles over lineups into inane and lengthy debates, or ponder about what a lockout will mean for Dustin Byfuglien's conditioning. Dominik Hasek's adductor creeps towards season-spoiling strain. Major stars light up littler leagues. And this year, Matt Puempel will be playing the most important hockey season of his career.
For a player who has experienced nine professional games (a stint in Binghamton following the merciful end to Peterborough's dismal regular season), Puempel has had his fair share of ups and downs. At one time a goal-scoring phenom in the OHL and an on/off-ice leader, the Essex native has spent much of the last two seasons rehabbing or recovering one injury or another. The Senators draft team took Puempel as a potentially high-value pick at the twenty-fourth spot, having traded both their own second round draft pick and the one they acquired for Chris Kelly for the Red Wings' first-rounder. The eighteen-year-old already had a blemish on his resume, a hip injury that had required reconstructive surgery during his draft year. Still, possibly filling an organizational need for a high-scoring winger at the tail end of the first round was a victory for the Murrays et al. Over a year later, Puempel has plenty of development to come, with each season more important than the last.
Last season seemed to be on track for Puempel. His hip was functional, and he was back to showing his most valuable attribute: goal-scoring. Only marginally below the previous year's pace, Puempel looked to be in good form. The first hiccup in his season was an eight-game suspension in December, handed down by the powers in the OHL for a hit to the head of an Oshawa General. Then, in the new year, Puempel's season was completely derailed when he was on the receiving end of a devastating blow to the head from a wandering elbow. The Petes would be evidently cautious, not having Puempel return to gameplay during the rest of their low-flying campaign. While still a junior player, Puempel was eligible to play in the tail-end of the Binghamton Senators' similarly basement-dwelling year. During a short stint in Bingo, the winger notched his first professional tally--not a bad way to finish a season that had gone off the rails at the halfway point.
There is no questioning Puempel's goal-scoring ability. Moreover, anyone who watched the Senators' rookie training camp last year would have had the added benefit of seeing Puempel's smooth and strong skating, as well as his wicked shot. Nobody calls into doubt his leadership abilities, exhibited on Peterborough in his time there. He probably has even overcome his little case of "being a Leafs fan for all his childhood." Yet, anyone familiar with Puempel is given pause by his injuries, which are coming awfully close to being a 'laundry list.' The Petes' star was sent to Kitchener during the OHL off-season, a blessing for the development of the Sens' prospect and an opportunity to show us actual growth: we know he's capable of a thirty goal season. What more?
Playing on a skilled Kitchener team, Puempel still has a clear designation as one of the team's stars. Still, there won't be as much wiggle room as there might have been on a rebuilding Peterborough squad. Infuriating to an athlete, a concussion limits all forms of physical activity for a time. Not only can you not play, but you are unable to work to be better for when you do finally step back on the ice. Fortunately, being on a team where you have to compete from prime ice time has the opposite effect--competition is good. The Senators are stacked with young talent. Matt Puempel has no guaranteed future spot on one of the team's top two lines. But this season, surrounded by talent on Kitchener, Puempel can play his way back into the spotlight. Stefan Noesen had an excellent year in 2011-2012 and Mika Zibanejad owned part of the conversation owing to that little backhand he flipped over the Russian goalie. Shane Prince was dominant as well.
Puempel needs a year of excellence, to show the organization he can improve with passing years. And, health willing, we have every reason to expect he will perform at that level. What he will need to do in order to gain fan reverence is up in the air: forty goals? forty-five? The answer might have something to do with how long this lockout lasts.