Matt Puempel fails to check a guy. Not shown: everything Matt Puempel is good at.
Those of you who were clamouring for the Edmonton Oilers to pick a forward first overall in the SB Nation NHL Mock Entry Draft can breathe at least half a sigh of relief. Our day has come again and, nineteenth overall, the mock Oilers have selected Peterborough Petes left winger Matt Puempel.
The 6'0" Puempel roared into the Ontario Hockey League last year, bagging 33 goals and 31 assists en route to Canadian Hockey League Rookie of the Year honours. He might have been a top ten pick once upon a time but Puempel stagnated, improving on his performance by only one point, dropping to an Oilers-esque -33 on a morbidly awful Petes team, and concluding his season in style with a serious hip injury which forced him to miss a dozen games.
Injury problems, plays for a lousy team, a little undersized, and has a weird last name? You're damned right the Oilers are going to draft him!
Puempel's a hard guy to figure out. The talent is obvious and might justify a top-ten pick. Injury is a question mark, as is his stagnation on a team that desperately needed him. What of it? Look at the numbers and you see that Puempel's a good enough player to be worth more than the late-first-round slot the big scouting services give him. Watch him play and you see the sort of natural-born trigger man that has always made coaches and fans alike drool like overstimulated puppies. He certainly isn't a reach at nineteenth overall, and depending on the breaks he might be a steal.
At this point it is obligatory to talk about what a well-rounded player the seemingly one-dimensional prospect is. I will not bore you with such nonsense. Matt Puempel is a goalscorer. The hockey gods put him on this earth to score goals and, for his entire career since bantam, that's what he's done. He's put the puck on the net, and a reasonable percentage of the time the puck has therefore gone in the net. He will sometimes pick up an assist off a rebound or because defenses are so petrified by his shooting that they forget he can pass the puck, but he is a shooter through and through.
Again and again, scouting reports on Puempel come to his shooting. Hockey Prospectus says:
He has terrific mechanics and accuracy on a shot that is above-average and flashes plus potential. The word "quick release" is sometimes overused in scouting circles, but with Puempel his release is something that separates him from other goal-scorers and his ability to get quality shots off in motion and without having to set his feet is a very desirable trait.
(They're saying he has a quick release.) Or, to quote TrueHockey.com's Greg Thomson:
One of the primary reasons for Puempel’s scoring success is his quick release and inclination to get the shot off when the opposition goalie isn’t prepared.
Reading Puempel's scouting reports, you can understand why Hockey Prospectus would criticize the overuse of the term "quick release". Having seen far more of that phrase while preparing this article than I ever thought possible, let me give it to you straight: Matt Puempel has a quick release. I don't know what else to tell you. The puck on the blade of his stick and before you have time to think "I wonder what Puempel will do here" it's in the back of the net.
There is some bad news for Puempel. He compares himself to Rick Nash: he's not a physical player, exactly, but he's expert at using his body to shield the puck from defenders and buy himself time in the same way Dustin Penner does. That's hard to carry into the NHL when you're a 6'0" winger. Moreover, if he's not scoring he's not doing much. He has a useful playmaker's eye and passes accurately but it's nothing that would get him into the NHL on its own. Peterborough ran him out on the penalty kill a few times last year but that's because Peterborough was terrible: he's not an NHL-grade PKer.
Any time we talk of Matt Puempel, we get back to how bad his team was. Puempel was -33 last year and there's no way to sugarcoat it: that's awful. Compare it to his Peterborough teammates, though, and Puempel comes off a bit less harshly: leading centre Austin Watson (a first-round pick of the Nashville Predators last year) went -38, and right winger Lino Martschini was -35. The wooden spoon for sheer failure on last year's Petes probably goes to 16-year-old defenseman Connor Bolland, who in fifty-five games had no goals and seven assists to go with a -33 rating. The fact that Peterborough was running out a 16-year-old defenseman for 55 games might hint at how crummy they are.
Puempel's 0.618 goals per game is more than respectable, easily better than Watson's 0.500 and a significant improvement on Puempel's 0.559 goals per gams as a rookie. He made an even larger improvement on his assists-per-game production despite Peterborough going from a bad team which snuck into the playoffs to a horrendous team that even Kingston Frontenacs fans can snicker at.
Puempel's a good powerplay scorer but he also gets his share at even strength. No Ryan Nugent-Hopkins he. 15 of Puempel's 34 goals last year were on the powerplay, which is fine.
I advocated for us to take Puempel at this spot but I won't pretend it isn't a risk. Hip surgery, even in this day and age, is no sure thing. If Puempel returns with a bit less mobility or the durability of Gilbert Brule then we just wasted a pick on the next Marc Pouliot with a Zach Parise possibly lurking beneath to make us look really stupid. Mea culpa. Sports is about risk, though, and no pick at nineteenth overall is truly safe. It's my philosophy that, at these spots, all you can do is take the most talented player who has a reasonable chance of making it and cross your fingers.
Puempel's injury, a chipped hip bone, required surgical correction, which is never a good sign. That said, bone injuries tend to be less frequently chronic than joint, ligament, or muscle injuries. If the surgery was performed well and Puempel rehabilitates intelligently, we might never be able to tell he was hurt. That's hopeful.
I'm not sure we'll have to worry about him on draft day. Players like Puempel give general managers erections: born snipers who are relatively low-ranked but who everybody (and I mean everybody) thinks might go higher than their ranking. He's the sort of guy who I can see some bored GM snapping up at ninth overall because he really doesn't see anyone that much better and wants to be on television. If he does fall to us, though, he'd make a fine Oiler.