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Binghamton experience 'eye opener' for Puempel

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Matt Puempel, a first-round pick by the Senators in 2011, is getting a new start in the Ontario Hockey League following his trade to the Kitchener Rangers on Wednesday (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

Undoubtedly, there are much bigger 'firsts' lying ahead in the still-burgeoning hockey career of Matt Puempel.

But for the moment, at least, he can still take a moment or two and smile about the night of April 14, when he notched his first professional goal for the Binghamton Senators in their season-ending American Hockey League game against the Norfolk Admirals.

For the B-Sens, it marked the finish of a disappointing campaign that didn't include a trip to the Calder Cup playoffs. But for the 19-year-old Puempel, it was a beginning of sorts.

"I wasn't playing too much at the beginning, just being a young guy," said Puempel, who enjoyed a nine-game stint with the Ottawa Senators' primary affiliate after his Ontario Hockey League season ended with the Peterborough Petes. "But toward the last few games, I got a few more chances and to score that first goal was pretty nice. A lot of kids dream about their first NHL goal, but that first pro goal is still nice. I kept the puck and I'll always remember that."

Perhaps what will stick with him longer, however, are the lessons he's already started to learn in teams of making the jump from junior hockey to the pros.

"Going to Binghamton was a big step," he said during a break in the Senators' annual summer development camp. "I couldn't have had a better time there. It was so much fun, a great group of guys and great coaching. Just to be in a pro atmosphere like that was a real eye opener. I think it really helped my development and I was really looking forward to it.

"Too bad we didn't make the playoffs, but it was a ton of fun and I gained a lot of experience there."

Also count Randy Lee, the Senators' director of hockey operations and players development, among those who things the brief stint in Binghamton will have a positive effect on Puempel down the road — and sooner rather than later.

"He knows now — and I think he has a really clear picture in his head — about what it's going to take," said Lee. "He looked at me and said 'boy, these are men, they're strong and if you don't make a decision quick, you're either going to lose the puck or somebody's going to take it from you.'"

Puempel also believes another great opportunity awaits him this falls with the Kitchener Rangers, a perennial OHL powerhouse which acquired him from the Petes on Wednesday in exchange for Zach Lorentz and a pair of draft choices. Not only does it give Puempel a potential shot at a Memorial Cup, it also puts him right in front of the watchful eyes of Rangers bench boss Steve Spott, who also happens to be the coach of Canada's entry at the 2013 world juniors in Russia.

"It's a good opportunity going to Kitchener," said Puempel, a two-time 30-goal scorer with the Petes who was also the team's captain. "It's a great organization and all that. I'm happy at the same time that it worked out for both sides. Peterborough got a good player back and a couple of second-round picks.

"I liked it in Peterborough — I spent the last three years there — but I'm just looking forward to a new part of my life in Kitchener."

He's also enthused about the thought that the trade moves him much closer to his hometown of Essex, Ont., which is less than a three-hour drive from Kitchener.

"That's a big part of it, trading conferences and going to the Western Conference," said the 6-0, 198-pound forward, a first-round pick (24th overall) by the Senators in the 2011 NHL Draft. "Being 2-1/2 hours away from home as opposed to Peterborough, which is five, is a big thing. More family members can come out (and watch me play) and maybe I can shoot home a couple of days during the year. I'm definitely looking forward to that part of it."

It can certainly be said that Puempel's final season in Peterborough didn't exactly go as planned. A concussion suffered on Jan. 5 cut short his year after just 30 games, but he got a clean bill of health from doctors which allowed him to suit up for the B-Sens. He says there are no lingering effects and his off-season training is right on schedule.

"I've been healthy since I got to Binghamton and I've been working out since then," he said. "I've been up here (in Ottawa) for the last month working out and I feel the best I've ever felt. I'm looking forward to a healthy season and, hopefully, a chance to win a Memorial Cup."

Not that Puempel is looking past the chance to impress Senators brass at training camp in September. Though he's fully prepared to play one more season of junior hockey, he'll give it his best shot against the big guys in Ottawa.

"Any kid coming to camp doesn't come to camp to get cut, right?" he said. "They're trying to make an impression and trying to make the team they're trying out for. That's the mentality I'm going to (take) into camp. But there's also the development standpoint, too, and another year in junior would be good either way.

"Whatever they want me to do is what I'm willing to do to be here full-time someday and to become an Ottawa Senator."

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