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Penner plays well but recognizes the heat is on with new NHL club in Edmonton

The Edmonton Oilers' big-name free agent forward signing this off-season is still feeling the effects of a gruelling two-month march to the Stanley Cup championship with the Anaheim Ducks.

But the 24-year-old isn't getting much chance to pace himself at training camp, patrolling the left side on a line with swift-skating Ales Hemsky and young centre Sam Gagner. All three ate up the scoresheet in intrasquad action and contributed to the team's first pre-season win on Monday against the Florida Panthers.

"He's difficult to defend. He's a guy you can't play too close to," defenceman Steve Staios said after practice Tuesday. "He's so big he can protect the puck really well and gifted enough offensively with those hands that if you give him too much time and space he's going to do something."

The six-foot-four, 245-pound forward from Winkler, Man., combined with Gagner and Hemsky for 13 points in the team's marquee intrasquad game, the Joey Moss Cup, on Sunday. In Monday's 5-4 win over Florida, Penner played a physical game and held up traffic in front of the net to allow Gagner to jump on a loose puck and fire a wrist shot past goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

"He's so big, he's so strong, with the new rules you can barely touch him," said forward Jarret Stoll. "And if you can't touch him, you're not going to get the puck off him. He's just a wall out there. He's got great hands, he finds guys. He's going to be great for our team."

Penner says he's not used to being the one sucking wind after the team's ultra-physical "bag" skates, but says he's getting there.

"It's about being smart for me, conserving energy. Work hard but work smart. It's a long season. I played 82 games last season plus 21 playoff games, and exhibition games.

"The games I'm concentrating on are the ones that count."

Penner said he's also adjusting to life in a hockey-mad city, where 300 fans showed up last Friday to watch camp hopefuls skate laps and where dinners out mean being crowded by fans, posing for photos, and autographing napkins.

He said he talked to Joffrey Lupul, an ex-Duck who came to Edmonton in the Chris Pronger trade last year with high expectations to score, but instead struggled, seemed lost and unwilling to fight for the puck and was traded to Philadelphia.

"He had a tough year here. I think he's going to have a great year in Philly."

Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe fired a shot heard round the NHL this summer when he signed Penner as a restricted free agent for US$4.25 million a year for five years - about 10 times more per season than the $450,000 Penner played for last year in southern California, when he scored 29 goals and added 16 assists.

Critics deemed the signing offside, saying it violated an unspoken rule not to sign restricted free agents.

Ducks general manager Brian Burke declined to match the offer and was publicly apoplectic, calling Lowe desperate but nevertheless emphasizing he didn't mind GMs exercising their right to sign Group 2 free agents. Just not this one. At this time. At that price.

The Ducks will receive first, second and third round Oiler draft picks in 2008 as compensation.

"We needed a player who could play up in the lineup and it certainly didn't hurt that he's a Western Canadian kid and wanted to come here," Lowe said Tuesday.

Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said it was a move that had to be made for a team that scored a league-low 195 goals last season and traded away offensive sparkplug Ryan Smyth.

"We knew when we got shut out in the free agent market and lost Ryan last year with the production he had that we needed somebody to step up and fill that position.

"He's a guy that has a lot of the same attributes as Ryan in terms of his ability to go to the net."


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