No. 11: Matt Puempel (Reader rank: 10, Last year: 9)
5 years after being drafted, 3 years with significant AHL time - this is it for Matt Puempel. He signed a one-year, two-way deal, but if you look at the salary breakdown, it only represents a modest AHL paycheck ($75K) vs. a solid NHL one ($900K). This is partly because Puempel is now waiver-eligible - i.e. he's in a really similar situation as Shane Prince was in last year. If Prince is any indication, this doesn't mean that Puempel will end the year with the Senators -- especially with left-wingers Nick Paul, Ryan Dzingel, and Francis Perron gnawing at the rope -- but it does mean that he has to produce at the NHL level now to solidify his spot as a regular.
Puempel's a known commodity around these parts. One of the team's three first round draft picks in 2011 (and surprisingly the last one standing), the Sens liked Puempel so much that they traded two second rounders to Detroit (Tomas Jurco, Xavier Ouellet) to grab him. At the time, the scouting report was all about his shot. Puempel had won the CHL Rookie of the Year award and had back-to-back 30+ goal seasons to start his CHL career. Success followed him to Binghamton as well, where he was one of the league's top rookies and was second only to Ty Rattie of the St. Louis Blues in AHL rookie goal scoring with 30.
Like the rest of the BSens, Puempel had a rough 2014-15 season, but managed to play 13 games with the big club - scoring his first two NHL goals. He doubled his NHL games played this past year, but it wasn't due to his NHL point production. In fact, his 3 points in 26 games matches his 3 points in 13 games the year prior. Importantly, Puempel's ranking didn't fall off a cliff because of that, mainly due to the fact that he put up his highest point-per-game total in the AHL (30 in 34 games) - a league he's clearly done with. All that's left for him is to produce at the NHL level, and he knows it (interview with Bob Duff of the Ottawa Citizen):
"Obviously at this point, when you're so close to living out your dream, and you've got your foot in the door, really accelerating is definitely what I want to do, and not just go into camp like in past years when you just wanted to learn and make a mark," Puempel said.
"You want to go in and earn your spot on the team and earn your position."
Puempel figures he can do that by doing what he's done best during his career — put the puck in the net.
In the same article, Puempel cites that he had a good relationship with Dave Cameron and understood that he had to pay his dues. Of course, Puempel isn't going to go out and slander his former head coach, but it really seems like he got the short end of the stick last season. Inferior players like Max McCormick and Dave Dziurzynski got a good chunk of NHL time, likely due to "roles", and it was this time that Puempel could've really used to develop his NHL game.
Via this graphic from the wonderful HockeyViz.com, you can see that Puempel had solid linemates in Bobby Ryan and Mika Zibanejad for the bulk of his first call-up in 2015-16. The trio struggled and generated barely any shots (3rd graph, black line) while giving up a ton (3rd graph, red line). If I had to guess as to why this happened, I'd chalk it up to the incompatible playing styles of the trio. Puempel and Ryan are similar players in the neutral zone and neither have the speed to create gaps in the opposition and carry the puck in. This would leave Mika Zibanejad to do the bulk of the transition work, which makes him an easy target for opposing teams to pick off. I'd back this up by looking at the same lines on the 3rd graph when Mark Stone becomes the linemate of Puempel and Zibanejad. It's only *here* where the trajectories change for the better, as Stone is a neutral zone force.
Puempel was up and down a ton, and unfortunately ended the season on a struggling fourth line. I even wrote a more detailed piece on Puempel's history and lack of real opportunity back in March after he didn't get ice-time post-Shane Prince trade. The only time he ever really had positive results was when he was with Mark Stone or Mike Hoffman, the Senators two elite forwards. What does this tell us? Puempel isn't a player who can dictate play. At best, he's a complimentary top-9 forward with a top-6 calibre shot but unless a great puck distributor can get him the puck in the offensive zone, he's likely going to be unable to use it. At 23 years old - the peak time for NHL forwards - it's up to Puempel to show that he's improved enough to dictate play. Again, Puempel seems to know this (via Bob Duff):
"I need to play to my strengths," Puempel said. "I think last year I was hesitant at times and wanted to make the safer play, as opposed to really going out of my limits and do what I'm kind of known for.
"So that's what I want to do going into camp. I'm just going in a lot more confident."
Puempel's intent is to put an end to his yo-yo days and establish a foothold in the nation's capital.
Puempel likely finds himself on the 4th line with Chris Kelly and Chris Neil or as the thirteenth forward to start the year - not exactly the ideal situation. What kind of season do you think we'll see from Puempel?