Saturday, May 5, 2012

Penner Sees the same in Kings as he did with Cup-Winning Ducks

By Larry Wigge

Dustin Penner used his 6-4, 245-pound frame to barge into the goal crease and occupy goaltender Brian Elliott and a pair of defenseman -- pretty nifty move by a power forward ... who has done this kind of damage before.

Teammate Mike Richards picked up the loose puck and deposited it into the St. Louis net 31 seconds into the contest. Later in a four-goal first period, Penner's huge body shadowed the crease again when Jeff Carter scored at 18:37. The goals primed a Los Angeles Kings to a 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues to win both game on the enemy ice.

Penner's two goals and four assists in seven playoff games this spring aren't dazzling numbers, but St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock says he has been a factor the opponent can't ignore.

"We saw this for the last six weeks," said Hitchcock. "When we were here for Game 75, one of the coaches pre-scouted and said, 'Looks like he's dug in.' For whatever reason -- maybe impact of the new coach, linemates, whatever, we saw this. This looks like the same player that played in Anaheim."

The undrafted Winthrop, Manitoba, native, was dug in. He had seven goals and 10 assists in 65 games for the Kings. Penner was back -- the same guy who had 29 goals as a rookie for the Ducks in winning a Stanley Cup in 2007 and had a career-high 32 goals for the Edmonton Oilers in 2009-10.

"You know, he's done it every year, scored 20-25 goals until this year. You don't just lose those skills," said Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter. "And I think that's what he expects of himself.

"The biggest thing I said when I first came is, it's totally unfair, just because he's 240 pounds, to expect a guy to be a physical presence if that's not natural for him, but he can protect the puck and he can be stronger around the net and when he does that, he can have an impact on your team."

Dustin Penner sees a lot of the Cup champion Ducks in these Los Angeles Kings. That's kind of a coincidence because the Kings are starting to see a little of the 2007 Dustin Penner in him.

"The one thing I've noticed with this group is a willingness to believe in the system and believe in ourselves as a team," said the 29-year-old winger. "We have that quiet confidence, a bit of a calmness because we're so focused and intense."

Dustin Penner whose arrival in Edmonton in the summer of 2007 came amid a nasty feud between Oilers GM Kevin Lowe and then-Ducks GM Brian Burke over Penner's five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet. Penner didn't live up to the money -- in Edmonton or in Los Angeles. So far ...

From the depths of rejection, he kept trying and trying, working harder and harder.

"Anticipating is a huge part of it because I'm already moving my feet because I know where the puck is going to go and I'm confident I want to get it," Penner said of his new mindset.

Soft hands enough to carry a 6-handicap in golf. You'd think that he would have had the size, speed and hands to make it to the NHL a long time ago.

Not so fast. The journey ...

It was like the kid standing last in line when friends were picking up sides. He couldn't even coax a tryout with one of the major U.S. colleges and had to settle for a stint at Minot State University-Bottineau in 2001.

"Believe it or not, I was just 5-8, 120 pounds when I started high school," he said, with a straight face. "All of the coaches, from bantams to midgets to juniors said I was too small. Then, I had a growth spurt of sorts ... went to 6-2 when I was ready for college. But I still didn't have anyone that believed in me. 

"I almost quit when I was 17. I wanted to play hockey, but I had no place to play ... Oh, I could've played in a beer league and gotten a job at the local plant in Winkler, but I wanted to give hockey one more chance."

That's when Dustin walked-on to the junior college campus at Minot in North Dakota, where he had 20 goals in 23 games. Then, he took a chance and went to a tryout camp in Saskatoon, where he was spotted by Grant Standbrook, assistant coach and recruiter for the University of Maine. Standbrook is usually credited with his work with goaltenders like Mike Dunham and Garth Snow. However, Standbrook helped Penner with his skating stride and had some pretty good advice on how a little-guy-turned-big-guy could work on the coordination of a man-child who just grew eight inches in just over a year. 

And the rest is history. 

Small to large almost overnight. It's an awkward position to be in. Consider, if you will, the slow starts to the careers of power forwards like Kevin Stevens, Keith Primeau, Todd Bertuzzi and John LeClair. Each was a work in progress. 

And each became a hungry, move-your-feet and use-your-size-and-strength force in the NHL.  

Penner has not been without his detractors. Plenty of them, in fact. But he continued to believe in himself, wondering, 'Why not me?'  After scoring just 10 goals and 18 assists in 77 games with Cincinnati of the American Hockey League last season, Penner took just two weeks off ... and then right back to work.

"I contacted the trainer I had the summer before and I worked out and skated four times a week," Penner spelled out for us. "My speed has improved. My coordination. My confidence.  

"We worked a lot with sprints on the ice, skating with a parachute behind me or bungee cords. Amazing." 

Hard work always underscores Penner.

When he arrived at the Mighty Ducks training camp last September, there were plenty of questions. But, this time, they were good questions. Like why is it this prospect from out of nowhere looked as good as former first-round picks Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry? But after just one year at the University of Maine and one more in the AHL, it was clear that Dustin needed more experience at the minor-league level.

But this from-rags-to-riches-story didn't all of a sudden come to life across the NHL without a lot of hard work on Dustin's part. It's hard to keep the faith, when coaches keep telling you that you're either too small as Dustin was as a kid ... or too gawky as he was after his eight-inch growth spurt. 

"I kept at it because I saw other players that I knew weren't better than me getting an opportunity," he said. "I think about it all the time. If Grant Standbrook hadn’t found me that one summer, I’d probably be working at the gas station in Winkler right now. 

"Looking back on it now, I think taking this route to the NHL probably made me work harder and learn more."

Goal-scoring comes at a premium in the playoffs. Most goals, in fact, can be traced back to a strong play along the boards or in front of the net.

And what a presence he's been.

Dustin Penner is one of those you’ve-got-to-be-kidding stories. The Pembina Valley Hawks cut him. The Manitoba Junior League's Winkler Flyers cut him three times. 

"It kind of got monotonous after a while," Penner recalled. "The same old song and dance." 

Dustin’s dad, Terry, got a little ticked off at his son for initially failing to send in his application for that evaluation camp in Saskatoon in the summer of 2002. But a friend helped him get a spot nonetheless. 

"My dad laid it on the line before we made the long drive from Winkler to Saskatoon," Penner said, kind of embarrassed to admit his wrongdoing. "He said, 'This was the last road trip we would make.' " 

But Terry Penner has made several more long trips since that camp, to the Frozen Four, where Dustin hit the goal post for the Black Bears in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Denver University in the NCAA championship game in 2004. He has also seen Dustin play more than once since he's arrived at the NHL level.  

"I always tell people, 'Don't give up on your dreams without a fight,' " he said. "You can wait for what seems like a lifetime for your dream and then, all of a sudden, it happens in a split second." 

Not so suddenly Penner went from this 5-6 teen-ager struggling to get picked to play ... anywhere ... to a 6-4 power forward scoring with regularity in the playoffs. 

"I'm a person who likes challenges," Penner said. "I always thought the biggest challenge was to get somewhere with my hockey career. But now that I'm here in the NHL, the challenges are even greater to stay here and excel.

"But it's not hard to remind myself where I’ve been and where I am right now. For me, the keys are simple: Move the puck, move my feet and go to the net. Hey, I've done that in my dreams all of my life." 

Pumping gas?

That was never part of Dustin Penner's future. Playing in the NHL? It's been well worth the wait. 

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