For Matt Puempel, the third time truly was the charm – his third appearance in the Leafs’ Rookie Tournament preceded his arrival in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators. But after suffering a high-ankle injury 13 games into his NHL career last year, Puempel is back in London, Ontario for his fourth go-round, and is looking to build on his experience both in the tournament and the NHL to solidify his position as a bonafide NHL forward.
“I felt good by mid to end of May. It’s felt good for a while now, so it’s kind of just a confidence thing,” Puempel said. “I haven’t thought about it all actually – until I’ve been asked about it a few times here.”
Though Puempel doesn’t like to linger on the injury, he doesn’t shy away from talking about it and said he feels it is part of the process.
“It’s good, though. [The questions] don’t bother me at all, honestly. It feels good,” he said. “It’s kind of a weird way that it happened, but injuries are part of the game. You just need to build on it.”
The rookie tournament allows him to test out his ankle in a more realistic environment. All the physio and training in the world can’t prepare you to get over the mental and physical hurdles like game action does, he said.
“I think there are different parts of the game that you’re not used to. You go on summer skates, obviously hitting, the pace, getting pucks out. Just doing your job. More playing your position and stopping instead of curling,” he explained. “And once you get into a game, the conditioning and the game speed – there’s nothing like it and you can’t replicate it in summer. It felt pretty good tonight.”
As this is his fourth time through the rookie tournament grind, Puempel is familiar with the ropes. He’s developed a sort of rookie tournament groove with which he is comfortable.
“I don’t take too much of a different approach. Obviously with more NHL experience last year, you kind of bring that here. Sometimes you have to adjust to the different levels of play you’re playing against – NHL, rookie tournament, you have to always try your best and put your best foot forward,” he said. “Anytime you get a group like this together, there are going to be little things that don’t click right away. But that’s part of the fun and part of the game.
“I don’t think I’m approaching it any different – I’m just training hard and trying to prove that I’m an everyday NHL player.”
And he said he feels he has a responsibility, as a veteran player, to share his experience with his teammates.
“Absolutely. Playing in the NHL, anytime you get to play in the best league in the world, you get a little more comfortable and more confident. And that experience can go a long way,” Puempel said. “I’m definitely trying to bring that here and I’m looking forward to this and starting the season off. It’s a good chance to get the kinks out and get back to playing hockey.”
Puempel said he looks at the rookie tournament as giving him an advantage – a head start on the competition, as it were, for main camp.
“Obviously, main camp is where you want to show, but this is a great tool to get ready. It’s kind of an advantage to play in high-paced games against different organizations,” he said. “Main camp is a few steps ahead of this, but this is a good starter. It’s a good thing to help warm up for main camp. And any time you’re playing against any other team, you want to win.”
In its first game at the rookie tournament, Ottawa took the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookies to overtime – the second OT game of the tournament – where players got to experience their first three-on-three action. Needless to say, Puempel likes it, but admits players are going to have to watch their pace.
“As an offensive guy, I like it a lot,” he said. “Sometimes when you go on that rush, you get a little burnt out going back, but I think the fans love it and there are definitely a lot less shootouts.”
After gaining experience in 13 NHL games last year, scoring a pair of goals and experiencing life at the highest level of play, Puempel is anxious to return and reclaim his spot in Ottawa. But he has learned to focus on the things he can influence.
“You can’t look at things that you can’t control in the future, whether it’s different positions or whatnot,” he said. “You just have control of your game and how hard you work and that’s up to me. I’m looking forward to that. Learning how to be an everyday NHLer last year, I definitely want to bring that into this year.”
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