As left wing Matt Puempel of the American Hockey League's Binghamton Senators continues to evolve as a hockey player, one thing has remained constant: his natural ability to create offense.
"He's been a goal scorer wherever he's gone, and that has definitely followed him here," said Senators coach Luke Richardson. "His ability to look for openings offensively and his shot -- it's a heavy, major-league shot -- those are just God-given talents that aren't teachable to some people."
The 21-year-old Puempel, selected by Ottawa at No. 24 in the 2011 NHL Draft, spent four years in the Ontario Hockey League with Peterborough and Kitchener from 2009-13. In his first season with Peterborough, he was named the Canadian Major Junior Rookie of the Year after recording 64 points in 69 games.
Puempel made his professional debut with Binghamton at the end of 2011-12, notching one goal in nine games before heading to Kitchener for his final junior season. He appeared in two regular-season AHL contests and notched two goals in three games during the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs, then joined the Senators full-time at the start of this season.
"Coming out of the OHL, it's similar to the AHL in the lifestyle," Puempel said. "But obviously, the players here are a lot bigger; it's grown men now that you're playing against. The time and space are eliminated pretty quickly, so you have to make plays a lot quicker, or you're going to get hit a lot harder."
Richardson, who played two seasons with Peterborough before beginning his pro career, can speak to the adjustments his top rookie scorer has had to make this year.
"It's a difficult transition when you're always the best player and then you come to the next league and have to start all over again," Richardson said. "It's humbling, but he hasn't taken any strides backwards; he's really taken progressive steps forward. His maturity level has definitely grown his first year pro."
Puempel has put up the numbers to prove it. The 6-foot forward has 28 goals and 18 assists for 46 points in 68 games this season, ranking second on the Senators in goals and fifth in points. He is third among all AHL rookies in goals and in the top 10 for total first-year points.
"It was a tough adjustment at the start, but once you feel more comfortable and confident, I think it becomes more natural with practicing, working out, getting stronger and just trying to get better every day," Puempel said. "It's what you have to do at this level in order to move on [to the NHL]."
The Essex, Ontario, native is in good hands as he develops under fellow first round-draft pick Richardson, who was taken seventh by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1987 draft and played for six different teams during his 20-year NHL career, finishing with Binghamton's parent club, the Ottawa Senators.
"He knows what he's doing back there, that's for sure, and he knew what he was doing when he played too," Puempel said. "He's been in our situation, so he knows where we're trying to go and what we have to do to get there; he helps a lot, and we're really lucky to have him."
A longtime veteran of the game, Richardson has worked closely with Puempel to maximize his instinctive talent.
"At times this year we've put him on lines that are more checking lines, to teach him a bit more of the defensive responsibilities so that he can become that complete 200-foot player," Richardson said. "I think he's realized that playing good defense means you just get the puck back faster. To his credit, he's really worked at it and has gotten better."
Puempel's priorities for his development align with those of his coach.
"I think a big part of the American League is working on defensive zone play in order to make the next, biggest adjustment of everyone's career, which is the NHL," Puempel said.
According to Richardson, the forward has gone above and beyond in his efforts to learn during his first year pro.
"He's the first guy to actually come in to the video room and ask questions about things that went wrong on goals-against," Richardson said. "He's not afraid to put himself out there, which is going to get him to the next level even faster."
But Puempel doesn't just listen to his coaches' feedback; a true professional, he absorbs and reacts.
"He doesn't get down when you talk to him, or pout and [not] produce for a couple weeks," said Richardson. "He's confident in his ability, so he's able to take constructive criticism and implement it into his game.
"He's had to alter some of his game, but at the same time is getting the same results, so that's a real good sign of maturity in a hockey player."
Awaiting his first recall by Ottawa while closing in on a Calder Cup Playoff berth with Binghamton, Puempel is quick to respond when asked what he can bring to the table at the NHL level.
The answer has been the same for the past 21 years.
"Growing up, I've always been known as an offensive guy," Puempel said. "I like to score goals. Hopefully, that's something I can translate to the next level."
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