LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Following his team’s 4-3 victory over the Nashville Predators at Staples Center in Los Angeles on November 8, Los Angeles Kings left wing Dustin Penner was so happy, he was quoting rhythm and blues artist Janet Jackson while addressing the media following the game.
Although Penner’s post-game grin reminded no one of the Cheshire Cat, he was obviously happy to have finally contributed in a significant way, with two assists against Nashville.
More on that later.
It should not be news to anyone following the Kings that Penner has had a huge target on his back, going almost as far back as when he arrived in Los Angeles after he was acquired at the trade deadline from the Edmonton Oilers last season.
The reason? Poor play, and, quite frankly, that would be putting it mildly.
Penner was acquired at the deadline last season to score goals. But he scored just two goals with four assists for six points in 19 regular season games, followed up by a goal and an assist in six playoff games, numbers that are nowhere close to what was needed or expected from him. In the process, Penner was often behind the play, was easy to knock off the puck, was rarely in a position to score or help create a scoring chance, and got winded quickly, increasing the size of the target on his back exponentially with every stride he took.
Despite the fact that Penner dedicated himself to improving his strength and conditioning during the summer, there was no discernible improvement in his play during the first month of this season.
Injuries suffered just before the season began didn’t help.
“There were, probably, five different injuries—lower body, hip, knee, both groins,” said Penner.
The injuries cleared up, but, as stated earlier, Penner continued to play as if he was in limbo, on a different plane of existence than the rest of his team, further raising the ire of the Kings faithful, who have, by and large, been calling for him to be run out of town on a rail, or worse.
For his part, Penner understands the heavy criticism (cue the Janet Jackson quote).
“If you go by the saying, ‘what have you done for me lately,’ there hasn’t been too much to write about, and that’s been my fault,” he said.
But after his last three games—and yes, it has only been three games—perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Penner.
Penner showed glimpses of being an improved player during a 2-1 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Staples Center on November 5. But his game reached another level during a 4-2 loss at San Jose, and then again during their win over the Predators on November 6.
“It would be right there,” head coach Terry Murray said when asked if Penner played his best game with the Kings during their win over the Predators. “I liked his last couple of games. He’s been bringing good work, trying to get some scoring in his game. Last night [at San Jose], he had a couple of real good looks, and tonight, he makes a play to the net, and [left wing Simon] Gagne ends up getting a goal, so it’s coming.”
“Just bring the work, bring the structure, and the real good attitude, like he has in the last three games, and the other part will come out,” added Murray.
At 6-4, and 242 pounds, Penner will never look fast, no matter how much his skating improves. But against the Predators, he skated better than he ever has with the Kings, getting himself into areas where he could be an impact player, including on the backcheck, when he forced a turnover that resulted on a three-on-two rush up ice, capped off by a goal from center Mike Richards in the second period.
“The one thing we all have to take pride in is our checking game,” Murray noted. “That’s something we’ve taken pride in the last couple of years, and we want to continue to be a good checking team. When you do that, and have that kind of an attitude going into a game, you end up with pucks on your stick, more than what you would think, and you’re going to be able to make some plays, and offensive opportunities will be created off of them.”
Again, it has only been three games, and Penner could quickly and easily revert right back to the disappointment he has been to this point in his tenure with the Kings. Nevertheless, for the first time since his arrival, there is hope.
One reason is his previously mentioned improved strength and conditioning. That is now evident, despite the fact that many contend that Penner is still slower than molasses—again, a guy who is 6-4 and 242 pounds is never going to look fast, and will look slower than he really is.
“I felt great,” Penner said after the win over the Predators. “That’s from my conditioning coming [into] the season. You could ask any of the reporters in Edmonton—my third game in four nights would never be very good.”
Murray has indicated that Penner did not have a bad attitude, but that he has not dealt well with expectations that are far higher with the Kings than they were with the Oilers, the worst team in the National Hockey League last season.
“I think that he came in here last year, and whenever you are a new player in an organization, you have a feeling that you have to have a great impression immediately,” Murray explained. “I thought he came in and played well last year. His game tailed off in the latter part of the regular season, but, initially, there was a good look.”
“Coming in this year, the expectations are higher for the whole team, and for him, they’re very high,” Murray elaborated. “He spent the summer here working out, he was really feeling good and confident, as he got through the summer and the start of training camp. Then he had some issues (injuries), and missed a couple of games at the start. Now there’s a feeling that, ‘I’d better get going,’ and I can understand—a player’s personal confidence is very important.”
“As a coach, I don’t really want to hear that from a player where he comes in, sits down, and goes in that direction. I put the onus back on the player all the time. Go get the confidence back in practice. Work harder. Do the things you need to do to get your game on track. But I do understand that it is very important for offensive-minded players who can score to have a lot of confidence with the puck, and to be able to do their thing that they have to do.”
Getting back to the reason Penner was so happy while addressing the media after the win over the Predators, it was not so much his two assists, giving him his first multi-point game with the Kings. Rather, that was just a part of it.
Indeed, Penner finally got a bit of a reward for his solid play in the Kings’ last three games. He played well, and had at least six quality scoring opportunities in the last two games, probably more than he had all season.
Penner’s positive outlook following the win over Nashville should not be overlooked. After all, at what point, since he was acquired by the Kings, has his play given anyone reason to be positive?
Penner now appears to have a much better handle on the higher expectations here in Los Angeles.
“Even during the year I had thirty goals [Penner scored 32 goals in 2009-10 with Edmonton], I wasn’t putting in nearly the work I was, off the ice, this year, during the summer,” he said. “When you’re struggling, you go through a lot of different outlooks on why it’s happening. For me, it was just to stop worrying about it, and just go out there and play.”
“[I’m] not squeezing the stick as tight,” he added. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve been over-thinking. In Edmonton, that wasn’t the case, because of the position we were in as a team [near the bottom of the league standings], and where I was on that team.”
Murray added that Penner is working harder, and that the pay off from that is great motivation to keep pushing forward.
“You know what? It’s just because of hard work,” Murray noted. “Any high-end, skilled player who does not work, it doesn’t matter how much talent you have. But if you bring work to the game, the skill will come out, and I really like the attitude he’s been bringing here the last [three] games. His reads on the ice are better, he’s skating better, he looks more comfortable.”
Murray promoted Penner back onto the second line, with center Mike Richards and right wing Dustin Brown, which likely contributed to Penner being able to find open space and create quality scoring chances.
“He’s playing with Richards and Brown, maybe that makes a little bit of a difference,” said Murray. “The puck is coming to him, like last night, in a couple of situations, and in the game in San Jose, where he’s getting those scoring chances, and I think that feeds a player like Dustin Penner, to get the chances. When he gets enough of them, he’s got such a great shot, he can overwhelm a goaltender.”
“He’s a shooter, he’s a finisher,” added Murray. “He’s going to find the areas to get those plays, [and] to get those pucks coming to him so he can get a quality chance at the net. It takes a player like Mike Richards to handle the puck, transport the puck through the middle of the ice, and then make a play in the offensive zone.”
“If you can find Dustin Penner, there’s no question that it’s either going to be a goal, or there’s going to be something [created] off of it, because the shot is so heavy. There’s going to be a second or third opportunity, with [the puck] lying around in front of the crease, and those are the ones you want to recover.”
Penner now has three assists in 13 games this season, numbers that are certainly not what they should be. Indeed, Penner still has a lot of work to do, and is not yet the legitimate top six forward who the Kings can rely upon to carry his share of the load in terms of goal scoring.
If only he could get that first goal of the season, that would be another key indicator that he might be making progress towards that end.
“There were probably a few more points out there for me, but I like the chances our line is getting now, even on the power play, and, just for myself, personally, they’re quality scoring chances,” said Penner. “Now it’s up to me to bury them and focus on that, instead of just getting them.”
On November 10, well after this story was published, the Kings announced that a scoring change has been made to their third goal in their game Nashville on November 8. The official scoring on the goal by Richards, assisted by Brown and Penner, at 9:28 of the second period, has been changed, as a video review showed that Penner lifted the stick of a Predators player, forcing the turnover, but Penner did not touch the puck. As such, the assist that was originally awarded to Penner has been credited to Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell.
Raw Audio Interviews From Nashville Predators/Los Angeles Kings, November 8, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Drew Doughty (1:41)
Dustin Penner (3:18)
Terry Murray (4:07)
Nashville Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz (1:14)
Raw Audio Interviews From The Los Angeles Kings Practice on November 9, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Willie Mitchell (2:18)
Terry Murray (9:00)
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