EL SEGUNDO, CA — To anyone who has watched the Los Angeles Kings fairly regularly over the last seven weeks, left wing Dustin Penner has been very, very noticeable…
…for all the wrong reasons.
Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi acquired Penner in a trade deadline day deal on February 28, 2011, in a deal that sent defenseman prospect Colten Teubert to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange, along with a first round selection in the 2011 National Hockey League Entry Draft, and a conditional third round pick in the 2012 draft that will become a second round selection should the Kings win the Stanley Cup this season.
Penner was acquired to score goals and create space for center Anze Kopitar. But with Kopitar out until next season with a broken ankle and torn ligaments, Penner, who is one of the most skilled forwards on the team, was expected to step up and give the Kings a lift.
But Penner ended the regular season scoring just two goals and adding four assists for six points in 19 games with the Kings. Even worse, he ended the regular season without a point in the final twelve games, and he last scored a goal on March 13 at Dallas.
That was 16 games (including playoffs and regular season) ago.
Through three playoffs games, Penner has just one assist, and, like he ended the regular season, has mostly been a non-factor. Even head coach Terry Murray has noticed, as he has demoted Penner to his team’s fourth line during Games 2 and 3 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal playoff series against the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks lead the series, 2-1, with Game 4 scheduled for tonight at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Despite his poor play, Murray is reticent to make any drastic personnel changes.
“Dustin Penner’s a very talented guy,” said Murray. “He can become a very good player in this game. Size, strength, speed, skill—he can make a difference in a game for us, and that’s what we need right now, for him to give us that kind of a performance.”
“If things aren’t going well for him, I have the option of moving [left wing Alexei] Ponikarovsky up [to the first line], which I did last night a couple of times.”
With the Kings being huge underdogs against the more talented Sharks, not to mention the fact that the Sharks have a lead in the series, Penner’s shortcomings are that much more glaring.
“You’re waiting for that dam to break,” he said about his offensive drought. “I’m not alone in going through a dry spell this year. I think [Washington Capitals superstar forward Alexander] Ovechkin went through one earlier this year. I don’t know how long it went, but it’s not fun.”
“I don’t know how you get into them, and if I knew how to get out of them, I would be already,” he added.
Whether it is a poor work ethic, which has been a knock on his game since his days with the Anaheim Ducks (2005-06 to 2006-07), or not being in good physical condition, which appears to be the case, Murray knows what Penner must do to become the impact player he should be.
“Dustin Penner can make a difference for us,” Murray stressed. “He can really get it cranked up pretty good when he applies himself the right way.”
“We saw the one play with [center Michal] Handzus’ goal [in Game 3 on April 19],” Murray added. “He made a good play on it.”
Problem is, that was one good play, one good shift surrounded by bunch of others where he has been a liability on defense, a seemingly uninspired perimeter player who rarely gets to the front of the net, and one who has failed to win many of the physical battles that he should, not to mention putting up some offensive numbers.
Despite all that, Murray has no plans to make big changes to his lineup, including giving forward Oscar Moller a chance to contribute with Penner failing to show signs that he can.
“I like our lineup the way it is,” said Murray. “I’m very aware of what Oscar Moller gave to us in Game 2 because of the circumstances with [center Jarret] Stoll being suspended. He played very well. But I think you need the grit. I think you need [right wing enforcer Kevin] Westgarth, as an example, in the lineup. I’m going to stay with that.”
Penner has been saying all the right things about his slump.
“It’s just concentrating on bringing the hard work,” said Penner. “With that, maybe you get one of those lucky bounces. You can’t worry about yourself in the playoffs. It’s more of a team game now than in any point during the [regular] season.”
“You just have to keep doing the same things,” added Penner. “I’m just going to keep going to the net and, at least, try to have a positive impact, whether it’s on the scoresheet or not.”
Murray does not appear to be willing to call out Penner, at least, not yet.
“I’ve got to trust him to get his game in order and to bring a difference to the game any given time he’s on the ice,” he said. “All I want from him right now, coming to our team late in the season like this, is to bring the effort, bring the tempo, bring the hard work. Good things will happen with talented players when they do that.”
Murray’s attitude towards Penner has not changed since Penner’s arrival from Edmonton. But Penner’s shortcomings have been so glaring that everyone has noticed—fans and the media alike.
Surprisingly, even though the Kings had just suffered the worst come-from-ahead loss in their playoff history, that was not the foremost topic on caller’s minds on the Kings Talk radio show, hosted by long-time radio play-by-play announcer Nick Nickson and radio color commentator and former Kings left wing Daryl Evans, that follows each home game.
Instead, the majority of fans calling into the show following Game 3 were far more interested in venting their frustrations with Penner.
As embarrassing as the loss in what might become known as the Flop On Figueroa was, for fans to be far more interested in berating Penner for his poor play is revealing, to put it mildly.
The time has come for Murray to take a new, more direct tact with Penner, who has done little to nothing to earn the trust that Murray mentioned. After all, Penner is a veteran player who has a Stanley Cup ring on his finger and has the skill to be a difference maker, the exact opposite of what he has been so far.
As for Penner, he needs to figure it out, and fast. But will he?
Let’s just say that the odds of that happening are not looking good at all.
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