Thu Oct 13 04:58pm EDT
No doubt Matt Puempel, Austin Watson and all the Peterborough Petes need no reminder of how long they were stuck on the number four in the win column last season.
It was 22 games, for the record. The Petes, at 4-1-1-1 in the OHL's Eastern Conference in Year 2 of the reboot under coach Mike Pelino and GM Dave Reid, have already matched that total in a third of the games. Whether a young team can keep that up remains to be seen. Puempel and Watson, the NHL first-rounders and co-captains, say they clouds that hung over last season have parted.
"We came to camp in a lot better shape, for starters," says Watson, the Nashville Predators first-rounder who is one of just six Petes in his age-19 or overage campaign. "We didn't want to go through the same thing we went through last year. It's tough only winning 20 games, but we came in with a little extra drive, a little extra focus. We know Mike's a great coach along with [assistant coaches] Jody [Hull] and Wayne Clark. We just have to buy into what they do."
Last season was a Murphy's Law year in Peterborough. The Memorial Centre resembled Grand Central Station with all the moves Reid and Pelino made. Their top centre, Ryan Spooner, asked for a trade and was dealt to Kingston (the main return in the deal, Detroit Red Wings draft pick Alan Quine, has 10 points in seven games this fall). Older players who were cast off flourished elsewhere (Liam Heelis helped Owen Sound win the league title and goalie Jason Missiaen landed in Baie-Comeau and was signed by the New York Rangers). Puempel also had season cut short by hip surgery, although he was still drafted high by the Ottawa Senators.
Page ahead to today and the Petes are having some modest success. Last week was kind of microcosm of the bumps they might endure. On successive nights, they blanked a Plymouth Whalers team many believe can win the Western Conference and got drilled 5-1 in Ottawa 24 hours later. Consider that a reality check they needed.
"There are more guys committed," says Puempel. "We've had a year of growth on the back end, there's a lot more maturity, not as much youth.
"We had a really young D corps last year," the left wing adds. "You see the nice passes and the poise they have this year compared to last. And we have two really good goalies [19-year-old Mike Morrison and 18-year-old Andrew D'Agostini] who are great competition for each other."
One change to the defence is 17-year-old NHL draft prospect Slater Koekkoek maturing ahead of schedule after playing for both editions of Canada's under-18 team this spring and summer. With Pelino being a former Rangers assistant coach, the Petes were also able to add Blueshirts draft pick Peter Ceresnak, who played for Slovakia at last season's world junior championship.
'Beacons to follow'
The Petes' good start has come without having to ride their co-captains for a lot of the scoring. Puempel (seven points in seven games) and Watson (four points) are still adjusting to playing with a new centre, Andrew Yogan, whom the NHL's Rangers entrusted to Pelino's care. The likes of 18-year-olds Quine, Lino Martschini and rookie Nicholas Ritchie, the No. 2 choice in the OHL priority selection draft, have started well. Put that all together and Pelino believes the short-term pain by design of last season might be paying off.
"Last year, even though our record wasn't what we would have liked it to have been, we had a lot of learning, a lot of growth. This year, we're starting to see the fruits of that. Our guys are willing to work hard and with a newfound confidence, we're starting to see some results.
"We're getting tremendous leadership from our co-captains Austin Watson and Matt Puempel," Pelino adds. "On top of that, [overage centre] Joey West has been terrific. He's always set a strong example. We've got quite a few young players on our team, so we've got some nice beacons to follow."
Puempel notes there is "already a buzz around Peterborough about how well we've done." The franchise does have its challenges, between four sub-.500 seasons in a row and Peterborough having the highest jobless rate of any metropolitan area in Canada. The players believe they can hold up their end of the bargain.
"That's obviously going to come with more wins," Watson says. "We keep putting a good product on the ice, the vibe's only going to get better around the city."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports . Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).