Following the Senators’ trade that sent Mika Zibanejad to New York for Derick Brassard, it was easy to circle November 27th on the calendar and look forward to the first opportunity for each of these players to face their former teams, but once Zibby was felled by a broken fibula, it felt like some of the air was let out of the balloon.
Thankfully, the recently claimed Matt Puempel has helped rekindle some of that.
Puempel, who was claimed by New York off waivers on Monday to help fill the void while Pavel Buchnevich and Zibanejad are out, scored in his first game as a Ranger and gushed to reporters after the game about the opportunity he’s receiving in New York.
“They let you play here, they let you play to your strengths. They know there are going to be mistakes. They’re not barking at you every time you come off the ice. It’s beneficial.”
Just in case you weren’t too familiar with Puempel’s development, it says a lot when these comments are probably the best defence that he’s played in years.
Inevitably, there are going to a variety of cynical fans who read these comments and use it as an opportunity to drop trou and shit all over the Senators organization for their handling of prospects and the way that the organization develops players. (As an aside, I read his comments as a general reflection on how he was handled as a prospect within the organization and not as something that is specific to Guy Boucher’s regime.)
The problem is that prospect development is not a one-size fits all situation where every prospect responds the same to a similar stimuli. Every prospect is unique and develops at different rates with there being no guarantee that a prospect will ever fulfill the projected ceiling that was placed on him during his draft year when the organization selected said prospect.
Should the organization shoulder some blame?
There’s no question that this organization has developed a reputation for giving opportunities to locally grown players or hardworking, blue-collar types whose character and professionalism are lauded.
“In Ottawa there for a while it was getting a little repetitious; chip the puck, chase the puck. I think this was the most minutes I’ve played in a long time. The more minutes you get, the better you play. You’re more engaged.”
Never mind that Puempel played more minutes in the Senators’ loss to Nashville just eight days before his first Rangers game, but his comments above do remind me of the time last year following the Dion Phaneuf trade when Tobias Lindberg made news by contrasting his experiences with the Toronto Marlies and the Binghamton Senators.
“A lot of skill work, which is new to me, we didn’t really do that stuff a lot in Ottawa. I like that. Just the rink and facility is amazing. Just the fact that you have two, a practice rink and a game rink, it’s just top notch.”
I get the fact that Puempel’s essentially already fighting for his NHL career and that he scored what’s arguably the most important goal of his life. I get that Puempel felt vindicated in the moment and his comments probably served as a defence mechanism for an insecure player who doesn’t want to take as much ownership for his situation as he should. And hell, I get that he’s probably using the opportunity to earn points with his new coaching staff and management in hopes that he’ll continue to get further opportunities down the road. They’re all pretty basic human reactions.
But at the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that Puempel turns 24 in January and that he’s been through three head coaches in Ottawa.
If there’s any self-awareness involved, he’s got to realize that it’s his own shortcomings as a player that have curbed his development as a player.
As a prospect whose strengths are limited to his shot, he has to realize as a player that top-six opportunities will fall by the wayside if his struggles away from the puck prevent his coaches from entrusting him to handle playing regular minutes against the opposition’s top lines.
Making matters worse is that Puempel’s essentially a trigger man who overly relies on his teammates for puck retrieval in the defensive zone and move the puck up ice. Whereas prospects like Ryan Dzingel, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman started on the fourth line and worked their respective ways off thanks to their larger skillset, Puempel’s best skill was hampered playing alongside guys like Chris Neil will be pretty infrequent. He was essentially caught in a situation where his best skill would rarely be used on the fourth line and he wasn’t good enough away from the puck to play top-six minutes.
As much as Puempel wants to play up opportunities, his situation in Ottawa wasn’t created by the various coaching staffs. It was created through a combination of factors that point directly back to him.
Puempel’s production has fallen off a cliff since scoring 30 goals during his first season as a pro in Binghamton and without being privy to the private meetings between the players and the coaches, it’s impossible to know how much the Senators tried to emphasize the importance of skill and creativity.
I just know that a player like Mike Hoffman, who has been roundly criticized for his defensive aptitude at times, has his shortcomings overlooked because of his ability to carry the puck up ice and produce points. It wasn’t the smoothest of transitions from the bottom of the lineup to regular top-six minutes, but regardless of where Hoffman has been slotted in the lineup, he helped drive possession enough and score enough to warrant longer looks.
And that’s Puempel’s problem: he never did enough to positively change the perception of him as a player.
He needs to own up to that.