Yes, Dustin Penner had an awful regular season. Penner recognizes this, owns it and deliberately leaves himself wide open for criticism. Nobody pokes more fun at Penner than Penner himself, but there’s a fine line between critique and cruelty, and Penner has become all-too-familiar with both sides of that line.
It’s no stretch to say that Penner has been the most-maligned player in the NHL this season. Expected to be, at the very least, a 20-goal scorer and a first- or second-line threat, Penner scored seven goals, the same level of offensive production that many teams receive from a fourth-line rookie winger.
As the Kings lost games, and battled simply to make the playoffs, Penner became a lightning rod, a target, a symbol for all things gone wrong. He got ridiculed for his weight and eating pancakes and had his heart and desire questioned. A funny thing happened on the way to Penner’s demise, though. He got better.
The guy who had 17 points in 65 regular-season games now has six points in seven playoff games. Moreover, he’s skating hard, forechecking, making good passes and getting involved in physical play.
Penner could have started an "I told you so" tour, could have turned nasty and sarcastic when asked to explain his resurgence. He hasn’t. From the start of training camp, through good times and bad, Penner has remained amiable and approachable to fans and media, those who have wielded the sharpest daggers.
Penner’s strong play, against Vancouver in the first round and in the first two games against St. Louis in the second round, is a major factor in why the Kings have enjoyed success thus far. It has made him the most unlikely of heroes, although Penner knows his redemption story isn’t ready for publication just yet.
"It’s nice,’" Penner said. "It’s not nearly finished, but it’s a good start. I’m just trying to simplify and work on it one game at a time, one shift at a time. It’s working for me right now, so that’s how I’m approaching it."
To be certain, nobody should apologize for fair criticism of Penner, or any pro athlete. Any player who chases the dream of reaching the NHL understands that, in doing so, he is living a public life, one in which passionate fans and dutiful media members are watching closely and, in their own way, keeping score.
A player who makes $4.25 million and scores seven goals is going to hear about it, and should. Penner, though, shouldered an extraordinary share of blame for the Kings’ struggles, and some of that criticism turned personal. Suddenly, everything in Penner’s life became fair game for his harshest critics, even including his in-season divorce. For some, it seems easy to get that athletes remain human beings.
"I don’t think my dad has people standing outside his window, at his office, banging on it saying, 'You [bleeping] suck,' or talking about his personal relationships," Penner said. "It would probably be hard for him to do his job, I’m guessing. But you learn to deal with that. … I’ll let people say things that maybe I would get upset about in a different situation, because you’ve got to pick your battles."
Penner’s personality can be his biggest strength and weakness. He’s easygoing and quick-witted, but far from aloof. He has a goofy sense of humor, but he’s intelligent and well-spoken. Penner’s willingness to joke about himself softens some of the bile directed his way, but that also requires a thick skin.
In early January, Penner missed a game because of a back injury. The next day, he told reporters that his back had seized up when he sat down to eat pancakes. Penner delivered that information with a wry grin, clearly knowing that he was having some fun with the media and that he would draw some headlines.
Over the coming weeks, he certainly did, and Penner rolled with the punches. He embraced the situation and sponsored a charity pancake breakfast. A fan in Vancouver put a bottle of maple syrup behind the Kings’ bench, and Penner scored a goal that night. The only link on his Twitter bio is for IHOP.com.
It would be easy to mistake Penner’s good nature for a lack of caring, but that’s not the case. As he explains it, whether he’s playing good hockey or not, he doesn’t want to change who he is.
"I think, as you get older, you realize there’s not much you can control in life,’’ Penner said. "The only thing you can control is your attitude. I’ve been around both sides of the coin, around guys who have had a great attitude when they’re doing well but, when they’re not doing well, they’re not happy. And I’ve been around guys who have a great attitude when they’re doing well and, when they’re doing bad, they still have the same attitude.
"From a spectator’s standpoint, when I’ve seen someone who is struggling and still, every day, comes in smiling and laughing and enjoying life, it makes your problems seem smaller. Guys like Teemu Selanne, nothing fazed him. He was always, every day -- and I’m sure you’ve heard Brian Burke say it, and other coaches -- he just comes in with a smile every day. There’s a quote, and I don’t know where it’s from, but my buddy Joffrey Lupul has a tattoo that says, 'No bad days.'"
On the ice, there are fewer bad days for Penner right now. Eyebrowswere raised recently when coach Darryl Sutter decided to promote Penner from the third line to the second line, alongside Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, but the line has looked good and was excellent in the first period of Game 2 against the Blues, as the Kings scored four goals, won the game and took a 2-0 series lead.
"They’re obviously great players," Penner said. "Carts is a great skater and so is Richie. They’ve both played at a high level their whole life. Carts has got a great shot. Richie, he brings the same work ethic every day. He’s a great two-way centerman. He’s got great offensive skill, much like Carts, and they feed off each other well, because of the length of time they’ve spent playing together. It’s easy for me to jump on a line and play with those two guys."
Penner has also, at least for now, placated Sutter, who at one point of the season issued a public type of "now or never" challenge to Penner, with a clear directive that if Penner didn’t start playing better, he would permanently lose his place in the Kings’ lineup. Sutter, like many, saw the potential Penner showed, as a former 30-goal scorer, and wanted to once again bring it out of him.
"He’s done it every year except this year," Sutter said. "He has scored 20 to 25 goals in the last three or four years. I think that’s what he expects out of himself. The biggest thing I said, when I came here, is that it’s totally unfair, just because the guy is 240 pounds, to expect him to be a physical presence if that’s not natural for him. But you can protect the puck and you can be strong around the net, and when he does that, he can have an impact on your team. It’s the same thing when I coached against him, in Anaheim and in Edmonton. When he’s doing those things, he’s a tough guy to handle. When he’s not, he’s not effective."
For now, things are on the upswing for Penner. What tomorrow will bring, who knows? On the ice, that is. Off the ice, Penner will keep smiling. He’s unlikely to revel in the current praise, just as he was unlikely to sulk through the season-long-criticism.
"It’s pretty funny to sit back and talk about it with close, personal friends," Penner said, "because I don’t think everybody is accustomed to that in their life."
Wouldn’t it be something if Penner’s season had a syrupy-sweet ending?