Mike Pelino coached the Rangers under Tom Renney for three-plus seasons and got back into the coaching world this past year with Peterborough of the OHL. His top scorer this season was left wing Matt Puempel, who could be one of the bigger first-round sleeper picks in this weekend's draft.
"If there's a team that wants Matt at No. 5, I think they'll take him," Pelino told Newsday. "If someone wants him at 20, it's the same thing. He could go a lot of different spots. But if the Islanders stepped up and took him at 5, it wouldn't surprise me one bit."
Puempel is ranked No. 28 on the final Central Scouting list; Pelino noted Jeff Skinner's final Central Scouting rank was No. 34. The Hurricanes picked Skinner seventh overall and the 18-year-old is the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy at tonight's NHL Awards show in Las Vegas.
"Rankings and ratings are really overrated," Pelino said. "Matt doesn't come with the glamour or glitz of a top-5 rated player, I suppose, but I know there are teams smart enough to see through that and know that he's going to be a very good player in the NHL."
Puempel had surgery to remove a bone chip from his hip, which limited him to 55 games this season. Still the 18-year-old had 34 goals and 69 points for Peterborough, which struggled through a 20-45-1-2 season with new coach Pelino.
"He's definitely 100 percent healthy," Pelino said. Puempel's offensive skills have never been questioned. For him to succeed in the NHL, Pelino said the winger's all-around game has to improve.
"I liken him to a young quarterback who's always impressed people with the way he throws the ball," Pelino said. "Where a young QB has to show he can lead an NFL offense is by knowing when to throw and when to hand it off.
"Matt has never really needed to develop that other side to his game, because he's so skilled offensively. But adding those extra facets to his game is where he needs to improve."
Puempel could be on the board when the Rangers pick at No. 15 as well. No one would expect a mid-first round pick to jump right to the NHL, but Pelino could see it as a remote possibility this time.
"I definitely think he would benefit from another year of junior," he said. "I'm sure people thought that of Jeff Skinner, too. In hindsight, it wasn't necessary. But you also look at a player like Michael Del Zotto and think that he could have used another year of junior before making that jump.
"With Matt, he has some things he could work on with another year with us. But if he goes to a camp and impresses his new team enough, he's got the skill to do that."
As for Pelino, who was let go when Renney was fired in February of 2009, he's quite happy in his new job, working with former Ranger Jody Hull as an assistant and former NHLers Ron Tugnutt and Dave Reid as well.
"It's a tough, tough league. People make the decisions they feel need to be made," Pelino said of the final season with the Rangers, 2008-09, which ended with a fourth straight playoff appearance. "Had things not unfolded the way they did, I think we could have had some more success with the Rangers.
"But it's nice to see Tom and Perry (Pearn, now a Canadiens assistant) end up where they did. And it's nice to see young guys like Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi playing such big roles. And Henrik Lundqvist too; he's still the best goaltender in the NHL, in my mind."