EL SEGUNDO, CA — No one is going to easily forget that Los Angeles Kings left wing Dustin Penner was invisible for much of the 2011-12 regular season, scoring a measly seven goals with ten assists for 17 points in 65 games.
Penner’s time with the Kings started off poorly, as he was a non-factor from the moment he joined the team after a trade deadline deal on February 28, 2011.
A veteran forward with size and skill, Penner was expected to give the Kings’ struggling offense a boost, but he scored just two goals and tallied only four assists last year, after joining the Kings, and he chipped in with a goal and an assist in the playoffs against the San Jose Sharks.
Those are some rather lousy numbers in 19 regular season games with the Kings, to say the least, especially for a player who ended up scoring 23 goals and contributing 18 assists for 39 points in 81 regular season games last season (with the Edmonton Oilers and the Kings).
Penner was noticeable during last season’s playoffs for all the wrong reasons. In fact, following the Kings’ embarrassing come-from-way, way-ahead overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on April 19, 2011, fans were so incensed by Penner’s poor play, it seemed that they all wanted to do was vent their frustrations.
I wrote the following after the game:
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.
Penner’s most glaring issue last season was that his conditioning was poor, and that turned out to be the biggest obstacle standing in his way, at the time. But to his credit, he dedicated himself to a rigorous training regimen, and the results were striking, losing 18 pounds over the summer, replacing it with lean muscle mass.
There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes that, maybe, I didn’t fully understand. I’ve been traded before, but not during a season.
Getting my family down here, getting the kid in school, getting situated—that was probably harder on me, sub-consciously, than I realized. But now, everything has settled down, and I’m looking forward to it. It was a great summer. It was nice to be here, and to assimilate myself into the team, being at the rink [almost] every day, being around the trainers, and different players coming in throughout the summer.
After several different injuries to his hip, knee and both groins slowed his start to the 2011-12 season, Penner showed glimpses of what he could be throughout most of the season. But he was never able to get himself to a point where he could be relied upon, either offensively or defensively.
Once again, off-ice issues have apparently been a drag on Penner’s play this season, with him going through a recent divorce.
In fact, those off-ice problems may have had more of an impact than anyone really knows. In fact, center Jarret Stoll indicated that Penner was “in a dark place” for awhile.
“He stayed at my house some nights, and we were roommates [on road trips] sometimes,” said Stoll. “You help a friend. It’s like he’s your brother, and we’re all brothers in here. If you see a guy struggling, if you see a guy [who’s] down, especially a guy who’s as jolly as he is, it’s not too hard to see that some days aren’t going very well, and you try to help him out. You have lunch, or you have dinner, go to a flick, just spend time with him.”
“He’s a great guy,” added Stoll. “He’s a fun guy to be around, and he’s a great teammate. I’m very happy to see him score that goal and get us where we are.”
“That goal” Stoll referred to is the overtime game-winner in Game 5 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Coyotes on May 22, a win that sent the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Yes, you read that correctly. Penner, who, as reported earlier, was invisible for much of the season, scored the Kings’ biggest goal of the season, and one of the biggest goals in franchise history.
“It’s the biggest goal of my career thus far,” said Penner, who won the Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007. “Hopefully there’s a couple more waiting in the Finals. I was at the right place at the right time.”
Isn’t it rather ironic that after all the poor play, after all the harsh criticism that followed, and after everyone, including yours truly, thought that he would never find his game ever again, that he would improve pretty dramatically over the last six weeks of the season, and that he would emerge as one of the Kings’ best players in the post-season, on top of scoring that overtime goal?
The irony is not just palpable. Indeed, it is overwhelming, to say the least.
“With Penner stepping up the last few months of the season, and here in the playoffs as well, it’s a new sheet, it’s a fresh start for everybody,” said right wing Justin Williams. “He needed that, and he certainly understood that we’re counting on him. He’s done an awesome job for us.”
“It’s no secret that he wasn’t the player he wanted to be this year, but he’s slowly turning the page,” added Williams. “He’s scored some big goals for us [during] these playoffs. Knowing that we’re counting on him, he’s come through. I’m sure, if you ask him, too, by no means is he done. This needs to continue for us to be successful, and not just him. Everyone needs to be at the top of their game.”
A good amount of credit for Penner’s revitalization goes to head coach Darryl Sutter.
“There’s no doubt it was a tough regular season for [Penner], said defenseman Willie Mitchell. “When Darryl came in, he demanded a little bit more from him. He was real straightforward with it. Darryl’s been demanding on him, been real with him, and give Penner credit for looking him straight back in the eye and saying, ‘OK, I’ve got to compete a little bit more, prepare a little bit more, and play with more substance to [my] game,’ as far as being stronger on pucks, winning battles, and using his size. He’s done that.”
“You give Darryl credit for being straightforward, and being real with him, but you’ve got to give Penner a lot of credit, because you have to go out and do it yourself, and he’s doing that,” added Mitchell. “Give Penner credit. He worked hard to get the opportunity. He started playing some better hockey, and ended up getting bumped up to play with [forward Jeff] Carter and [center Mike] Richards. I think they’ve started to find some chemistry.”
“He’s started to find some confidence in his game, and when you find confidence in your game, all of a sudden, you get faster, you get stronger. All those things happen, and you can see that in his game now. He’s much quicker on the puck, much stronger on the puck, and he’s playing really well for us.”
But don’t expect Penner to bask in the limelight, take all the credit, or even think about his own situation.
“I guess when you’re in a hole that no one can really dig you out of except for yourself,” he noted. “I put that pressure and that stress on myself to get me out of where I was. I had great support from teammates, family, friends, the organization as a whole.”
Back to that overtime game-winner…
“I hadn’t scored in awhile, and the last one was into an empty net, so it felt good to score one with the goalie in,” said Penner. “Other than that, it was just such an intense, high pressure situation, because everybody’s hoping, while they’re sitting on the bench, watching, that there’s someone on the ice, on their team, [who’s] going to score. The longer it goes, you know how you get those iffy goals, or a fluke bounce that ends up right on the door step, on someone’s stick. It was nice to end that pressure that everyone was feeling.”
And yes, Penner was intentionally ignoring the personal significance of scoring that huge goal.
“It’s not significant [beyond] the obvious reasons for me,” said Penner. “It’s nice to get that goal to get [us] to the Stanley Cup Finals, because I know what an experience it [will be] for the rest of the guys, and you know how hard we’ve worked for the past [102 pre-season, regular season and playoff] games that we’ve played, the amount of practice hours. It’s nice to have that opportunity to win it all. Hopefully, we can keep on going.”
“I’m sure he’s sick of talking about what’s happened in the past, and that he wants to talk about the team, how well we’re doing,” said Williams. “He doesn’t want to talk about the year he had, and what he went through. I think the rest of us want to focus on the future, too.”
For Penner, the idea is to stay focused on the road ahead, the task at hand.
“Guys who have scored that one before would be lying if they said they didn’t feel some sense of self-satisfaction, but for me, it’s more the overall satisfaction that the team—I couldn’t have done it without my teammates, and the people who put me in that position, whether it was trainers, coaches, management,” he explained. “It sounds cliche, but it’s bigger than me. It had more to do with the team than it had to do with me. I just happened to be the guy with the puck on his stick at that moment.”
“I’m not looking back too much right now, or sitting back, and seeing what people think about what I’ve accomplished, he elaborated. “For me, and for the team, it’s about looking at the opportunity in front of you, worrying about that, and [trying] to stay focused.”
Even if Penner was not thinking about the significance of that goal for himself, his teammates were, a little bit, anyway.
“You’re always happy to see a teammate succeed after a stretch where things aren’t going their way,” Mitchell noted. “It’s really important for us, at this time of year, to have guys raise their level of [play]. That’s what you need in the playoffs. It’s all about guys doing it at different times, and he’s a guy who’s been doing it for us.”
“Anytime you score a goal, you get that instant confidence again, and you feel good about yourself,” said Stoll. “It’s no different with him, just to see that smile on his face. A lot of us in here struggled to score goals, so when you get one, it feels pretty good.”
“I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that it’s been and up and down year for him,” said Carter. “Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve noticed that he’s always happy, and he keeps working hard. When you’re upbeat and stay positive, good things are bound to happen. He’s been playing great with our line, the last little while. It’s nice to see him get a big goal like that.”
The bottom line is that it is time to focus on what National Hockey League teams are all playing for when the season begins.
“It’s pretty exciting to be going back to the Stanley Cup Finals,” Penner beamed. “I’m happy for my teammates, the organization, and for the guys who haven’t been there before, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and opportunity.”
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Media Conference Call, May 23, 2012
Dustin Penner (8:03)
Darryl Sutter (8:25)
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Optional Skate, May 24, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed):
Willie Mitchell (8:09)
Dustin Penner (7:08)
Darryl Sutter (5:27)
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Practice, May 25, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed):
Dustin Brown (11:28)
Jeff Carter (2:58)
Anze Kopitar (2:49)
Jarret Stoll (3:46)
Darryl Sutter (11:31)
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