Matt Puempel is hoping the latest twist in his career turns out to be the best move for his future.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
If Matt Puempel is destined to play for the Red Wings, his past includes enough close brushes with the organization that it will ultimately seem like fate.
Puempel grew up in Essex, Ontario, which sits close enough to Windsor that the Wings were a short car ride away across the Detroit River.
“I saw a few games when they were winning their last Cups,” he recalled. “That time was really exciting around Detroit and Windsor, so it was hard not to pay attention to them, that’s for sure. All my buddies were Wings fans, but I was a Leafs fan.”
Puempel would grow up to be quite the offensive dynamo on the ice. He was chosen in the first round – the sixth overall pick – of the 2009 OHL Priority Selection by the Peterborough Petes, a team that has sent numerous players to the NHL over the years, including Red Wings notables Steve Yzerman and Mickey Redmond.
He started his junior career in impressive fashion. He was named OHL Rookie of the Year for 2009-10, when he led all first-year players in goals and points. It was his first of three 30-goal seasons at the junior level, including two with Peterborough and one with the Kitchener Rangers.
“Playing in the OHL was awesome and a lot of fun,” he said. “To get drafted by Peterborough and play three seasons there, then move on to Kitchener meant I had an exciting four years, but the time flew by. I can’t believe this is already my fifth year as a pro. That’s how quick the time goes.”
Puempel was selected 24th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the Ottawa Senators. Ironically, the pick had originally been Detroit’s, but the Red Wings traded the spot to the Senators for a pair of second-round picks (35th and 48th overall) that led to Tomas Jurco and Xavier Ouellet wearing the Winged Wheel instead.
He scored 30 goals in his first full pro season with the Binghamton Senators, then split the next two seasons – 2014-15 and 2015-16 – bouncing back and forth between the AHL and Ottawa. He saw action in 39 NHL games, tallying four goals in a limited role.
Puempel made Ottawa’s roster out of training camp last season, but he became a healthy scratch after going scoreless in his first 13 games with the Senators. He was eventually claimed by the New York Rangers when he was placed on waivers by Ottawa.
Asked about his time with the Senators, Puempel responds with the grace of a seasoned diplomat. “It was good,” he said, before adding that “every organization is different,” reluctant to complain. “To play hockey for a living is a good gig,” he adds.
Like many players trying to establish themselves in the NHL, Puempel hungered for a larger role. In reality, young players usually don’t get to play big minutes.
“In Ottawa, I played ‘little’ minutes,” he said. “It’s hard to get going when you’re not playing a lot, but it’s part of the process. A lot of players go through that and you have to battle and find consistency in spite of it.”
The trick, of course, is to take advantage of the few minutes you’re given without trying to do too much and to make an impression without making a mistake.
“When you’re only playing four or five minutes a night, that’s not much time,” he said. “Little things are going to affect your confidence. At the end of the day, it’s not really something you can control, so you just try to keep working hard and do the right things.”
Puempel found himself scrambling to do whatever he could to stay in the lineup. Often it meant that he was playing in situations that were not always the best for creating scoring chances. His confidence waned.
He insists that he didn’t mind, as long as he was still on the ice. “I looked at every opportunity as a chance to learn different aspects of the game,” he said. “I wanted to learn how to play the game at the next level.”
It’s no surprise that he was happy to get a chance to start over with the Rangers. “New York was amazing,” said Puempel, who lived in midtown Manhattan. “The Rangers had a great group of guys and a great coaching staff, so everything was positive.”
When the team was hit by injuries, Puempel found himself getting time on New York’s power play. He made the most of the opportunity, getting a hat trick against the Arizona Coyotes, with all three goals coming with the man-advantage. “It’s obviously something I’ll never forget and something I was very happy to accomplish,” he said.
What made his feat on Dec. 29, 2016 even sweeter is that it came with his older brother in attendance, as he was on the Rangers’ road trip for siblings. Currently finishing his PhD in economics at Yale, Mike evidently serves as an unofficial good luck charm to Matt. “I had only two goals the previous season and he was at both games,” Puempel said.
His story took a turn for the worse the next game after his hat trick. Playing against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver on New Year’s Eve, Puempel suffered a concussion, his second of the season.
“I was just starting to feel good and getting things going when it happened again,” he said. “I tried to battle it, but we had a team get-together after the game and I had to just lay low. I thought it might be the altitude, but it wasn’t. After our next practice, I knew it was something that wasn’t going to get better without rest.”
Puempel sat out a good month as a result. “When you miss time at any point in a season, it’s not good,” he said. “To miss a month is frustrating, but there’s nothing you can do about it because you’ve got to get yourself better and get healthy. It’s part of the business, but it’s hard to swallow.”
Forced to play catch up the rest of the season, Puempel never really regained his confidence. Nonetheless, he was excited about getting another chance with the Rangers this year. He even talked about wanting to be more physical this season, an idea that was suggested by his coaches in New York. “When you’re playing lower in the lineup, you’re willing to do whatever you can do to stay there,” he said, “but I guess it wasn’t enough.”
New York dealt Puempel to the Red Wings in a trade for defenseman Ryan Sproul. The Oct. 21 transaction threw him for a loop. When he talks now about the trade, he repeats the word “shocked,” not for emphasis, but because he truly was caught completely off-guard.
Even so, he stresses that he is enthusiastic about his latest opportunity with the Griffins. “Having attended a few of the team’s recent Calder Cup events, I could tell how exciting it was and that it would be fun to help the team win another,” he said.
Puempel has quickly acclimated himself to Grand Rapids, even though he stresses that he isn’t the most gregarious guy. “I’m a little more on the quiet side, so it takes me a while to get to know everyone,” he said. “But the guys here are all great, so they understand where you’re coming from.”
Griffins head coach Todd Nelson said the addition of Puempel has provided a welcome increase in offense.
“He has tremendous upside,” Nelson said. “He’s still a young guy (Puempel won’t turn 25 until January) and he’s capable of scoring a lot of goals, so we’re looking forward to him helping us in that department.”
Puempel wasted little time in establishing himself as an offensive force on the ice in Grand Rapids, recording nine points in his first seven games with the Griffins, but he wants to be sure that he isn’t seen as a one-dimensional player.
“Sometimes when you’re labeled as an offensive player, people take your defensive ability for granted, like they don’t think you can play defense,” he said. “I’ve really tried to bear down on my defensive play the last four years.”
Puempel believes he has become a better all-around player. Seeing more ice time with the Griffins will enable him to improve even more.
“Getting to play a lot of minutes in different situations should allow me to work on everything,” he said. “The key is to learn every day, no matter where you are playing. That’s the most important thing, to play. You’re not getting better if you’re not playing.”
Puempel wants to work his way back to the NHL, but he is not going to obsess about his situation.
“You can’t worry about the NHL,” he said. “You can’t worry about getting called up or any of that stuff. I’m concentrating on being part of a winning team here. This is a good group to be a part of, so my goal is to have fun each day here.”