EDMONTON – Dustin Penner strode into the Edmonton Oilers locker-room after practice Thursday, his skates carving fleeting lines in the blue carpet as he passed the throng of media surrounding rookie Taylor Hall.
Cameras blinded the lanky teen in a stark white light.
“There is a learning period,” said Penner, referring to Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, three young forwards being counted on to take this once-proud franchise out of the NHL’s basement.
“The less pressure you put on a person at an early point in their career, the more surprised you can get.
“Whereas if you’re constantly on top of them as far as the media (is concerned) …”
He doesn’t finish the thought.
Three years ago, in the fall of 2007, Penner was the celebrated one. Fresh off his rookie year and a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks, Penner signed a head-turning five-year, US$21.25-million deal with the Oilers as a restricted free agent.
The deal paid off last year for the Oilers and for the power forward from Winkler, Man. The 27-year-old led the team in scoring with 32 goals and 63 points. He is projected as a first line winger again this season and one of the go-to veterans.
But to get there, Penner has walked through a blast furnace of criticism that began shortly after he signed the deal and Brian Burke, then the Ducks general manager, assailed it as “colossal stupidity” that would throw the league’s salary structure off its axis.
Penner came to the Oilers camp still sore from the Ducks’ long playoff run and not in the best of shape. Since then his play has shown flashes of brilliance, where Penner uses his six-foot-four frame and a vending-machine-shaped torso to dominate on the puck.
But when he’s off his game, he’s way off, and then the criticism from fans and commentators begins anew—too slow, too fat, too unmotivated, too streaky, and paid way, way too much.
Rock bottom came in November 2008, when then-Oilers coach Craig MacTavish benched Penner and called him out in the media.
“When we signed Dustin we thought he’d be a top-two-line player,” MacTavish said at the time. “We thought the contract was a starting point for him, but he views it as a finish line.
“I can’t watch it for another 2 1/2 years,” he said, underestimating Penner’s deal by a year.
Since then he’s been the subject of regular trade rumours, and almost found himself headed to Ottawa in 2009 in a deal for Dany Heatley.
On Thursday, Penner said he got through the ordeal with the support of family and friends.
“It wasn’t something I was fully prepared for, but when you’re in the moment I just try to weed my way through all the nonsense and focus on what is actually happening.
“It was pretty bad. But I always believed I could make it through.”
In the dressing room, he took all the questions. Was he a malcontent? Is he a coach-killer? Will he be traded?
“I had nothing to hide. I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t going to let a bad year define me as a person and as a player,” he said.
“You can attribute that to how I was brought up. My dad always had long-to-anger type of attitude. A long fuse, though sometimes that can be a flaw in this business.
“That was a tough year … but it made me stronger.”
He said he tried not to dwell on the rabid fan interest and 24-7 media coverage of the NHL in Canadian cities.
“If I had that type of year in Florida, Tampa or Phoenix, it would be a lot different than in Edmonton,” he said.
“The true litmus test is when you go through a hardship on a Canadian team.”
Penner said he’s turned the page. He has slimmed down from his usual 240-pound size (but won’t divulge his new weight) thanks to off-season sprints, pool workouts and sled pulls.
So knowing what he does now, he is asked, would he have passed on the Oilers three years ago?
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“I’m not one of those guys to look at hindsight because it’s always 20-20. I don’t think you can live your life in the past.
“(But) I am one of those people who like to think of what-ifs sometimes, like where would I be now if I had stayed in Anaheim for less money?
“Who knows if I wouldn’t have been traded away that year, or the year after with the (salary) cap problems that were there.
“It’s fun to think about but I don’t dwell on it.
“I am where I am.”