Dustin Penner never fully wanted to leave the Anaheim Ducks in the first place. He had just won the Stanley Cup and was part of one of the more exciting lines in the NHL with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
Even after he left Anaheim in 2007 to sign an offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers, he maintained a friendship with his former teammates and was often seen joking with Getzlaf outside the dressing room after games against his old team. Penner even kept his Newport Beach residence, just down the freeway from Honda Center. During the lockout last fall and winter, Penner wore a Ducks jersey when he worked out at Anaheim's practice facility.
All the while Penner felt that he could come full circle from the day he signed a five-year, $21.2 million offer sheet with the Oilers in the summer of 2007 and return to his NHL roots.
"It was one of those things I felt in my gut knowing that it was really tough for me to leave back then," said Penner, who got his wish Tuesday when he signed a one-year, $2 million contract with Anaheim. "It took me almost two weeks to sign the offer sheet. I talked to a lot of people in my circle -- that's probably the best to do. They always said you can always come back. Now I got my chance."
Penner said he had discussions with Getzlaf, now the Ducks' captain, when free agency began earlier this month and it was clear that Penner's former team, the Los Angeles Kings, did not have the salary cap space to bring him back. It's not clear what other teams were interested in Penner, a four-time 20-goal scorer, but Anaheim seemed like one of the few, if not the only fit.
"Getzy called me and said I should come back," Penner said. "I've known him for years. We have the same agents and circle of friends. There was a distinct possibility of me coming back to the Ducks, and having the captain on your side doesn't hurt."
The deal presents fairly minimal risk for Anaheim, which has $5.8 million worth of cap space, according to CapGeek.com. The Ducks are waiting to see if 43-year-old Teemu Selanne will return, and they must also re-sign promising forward Kyle Palmieri, who's due for a small raise.
Anaheim general manager Bob Murray presumably brought Penner back with the possibility of reuniting the Penner-Getzlaf-Perry line -- the so-called "Points Per Game Line" -- that helped the Ducks win the 2007 Cup.
"Dustin has had great success playing with Getzlaf and Perry, and hopefully that chemistry is still there," Murray said. "He's motivated and excited to be back. If he plays on the first line, that would be nice to give us some stability at that position."
It's unclear how coach Bruce Boudreau will use Penner, but Boudreau is known for changing line combinations frequently, so the PPG Line will probably happen at some point. Penner certainly hopes it does.
"I'm excited about having a chance to play with those guys again," Penner said. "We'll all big guys that can control the puck down low. Obviously it's been a while, and hopefully there's a chance for us to rekindle that chemistry that we used to have but they got a lot of really good players on the Ducks – [Nick] Bonino, [Matt] Beleskey, [Andrew] Cogliano, [Saku] Koivu, a great defensive corps. They were a tough team last year. I like the situation I'm walking into."
Penner's best season with the Kings came during their 2012 Stanley Cup run, when he was promoted to the second line and recorded 11 points in 20 playoff games. He memorably scored the series-clinching overtime goal against the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference Final to propel L.A. into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 19 years.
But Penner fell into coach Darryl Sutter's doghouse last season. He was scratched 11 times and missed four games with an injury. For his $3.25 million salary, Penner produced two goals and 12 assists in the regular season.
Penner still managed to show his postseason flair, though, with a buzzer-beating game-winning slap shot that clinched the conference quarterfinal series win against the St. Louis Blues. He has 35 points with a plus-19 rating in 78 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Penner still carries a reputation for poor conditioning and not using his 6-foot-4, 242-pound frame to its full potential. But it wasn't long ago (2009-10) that Penner scored 32 goals for Edmonton. He's also a winner -- having won Cups with both Southern California teams -- and a well-liked personality and media favorite.
Penner said his first stint with Anaheim gives him reason to believe it can work again. He comes back to a different dressing room -- this time, Getzlaf and former Hart Trophy winner Perry are the big names. There's also the leadership of Saku Koivu and Selanne, if Selanne comes back.
"I still think I can play to the level I've played with before in Edmonton," Penner said. "Maybe I just needed a different situation and hopefully this is the one I needed. The only thing is, time will tell."