Sometimes being the big man on campus has its drawbacks. As a top-ranked prospect for the Ontario League draft this May, right winger Matt Puempel of the Sun County Panthers team found that out the hard way this season as opponents made sure his playoff experience was as rough and physical as possible.
“Basically they tried to get him off his game,” said coach Greg Trojand. “He’s a competitive kid and he tried to fight through that.”
And while the Panthers made quick work of their first-round opponents, the London Jr. Knights proved too much in the second round.
“I wouldn’t say ‘mugging,’ ” Puempel,16, said of his treatment at the hands of the Knights, “but in the beginning of the season, teams weren’t really keying in on me, they were just playing their systems.”
But you have to be good to be hated on, and Puempel is good. Last season with Sun County (located in southwestern Ontario), the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder played as an underager and this season he missed out on the league scoring title by a single point to Boone Jenner. Regardless, Puempel’s 37 goals and 62 points in 32 games were still mighty impressive.
“When he gets the chance, the puck is in the net,” Trojand said. “He’s definitely a finisher.”
Added Puempel: “I’m not lost defensively, but I’d say I’m a playmaker and a goal-scorer.”
And it’s that goal-scoring prowess that warranted the right winger some spot duty with the local Jr. B team, the Leamington Flyers. Despite being 15 years old at the time, Puempel pumped in two goals in a Leamington romp and the experience was definitely a positive one.
“Obviously the guys were bigger and stronger,” Puempel noted. “You have to know what you’re doing, you have to know your job.”
Fortunately for Puempel, his size and skill has always granted him access to higher levels of play and that bonus season with Sun County last year also gave him perspective on what it’s like to be the star of a team.
“It was good to see how Mitch Dunning, who is now with the Sarnia Sting, dealt with the pressure and having scouts there,” Puempel noted.
The youngster is obviously excited for the OHL draft in May, but he also has tryouts for Canada’s under-17 team coming up in April. No matter what the challenge, Puempel’s coach knows the right winger will be prepared.
“Unbelievably high character,” Trojand said of his charge. “He’s very dedicated to the game, he’s always got the proper nutrition … he eats well.”
Puempel cites getting bigger and physically stronger as two aspects of his game he wants to improve upon as he develops, but with his big frame it’s hard to see how much else needs to be done. The fact he has some pretty good NHL mentors tells you all you need to know about the power forward game the youngster likes to play.
“Definitely Jarome Iginla is my favorite player,” Puempel said. “But the player I think I play like is Rick Nash.”
Using his skating and a quick release, Puempel is a tough offensive load to handle for any other minor midget player, so the challenge of the OHL will be a good one next year.
“His skill set is suited to play at a higher level,” Trojand said. “He’s a natural finisher and a big, strong kid.”
Prep Watch, which features minor hockey players destined to become big names in major junior or the NCAA, appears every Thursday, only on thehockeynews.com.
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