This started off being a comment in this thread at Lowetide's, but as I commented, I don't write here enough and don't want to hijack that thread. Dennis, a smart guy with an unfortunate habit of engaging mouth before brains made an interesting comment about Dustin Penner, saying: "As much as Penner's a slow fatty who isn't making anyone look good, I have a feeling that he's not gonna be bothered by people getting on him if it comes down to it."
Penner's an interesting player to me. I'm no hockey player (and nobody sane would ever confuse me with one), but when I look at him I can't help seeing somebody not unlike myself. Everything he has professionally he worked his butt off for, he's a late bloomer, and he seems to have a bit of an up-yours attitude. I think that attitude comes naturally to late bloomers.
In other words, Dennis is right: I doubt Penner gives a rat's ass what the average fan thinks. Even if you ignore the justifiable pride of a self-made man, he played a year on a team with Chris Pronger, who gets booed in virtually every arena he plays in, which never stops him from being a potential Norris candidate. I'm sure at least some of that attitude must have rubbed off.
Unlike Dennis and a lot of the rest of the Oilogosphere, I don't think Penner's played that poorly. I will grant that there have been games he's looked bad, but he's hardly a unique Oiler in that respect. I will also stipulate that he's not playing like a 4 million dollar man - 0.5ppg and 10PIM in 17 games is more the speed of somebody making a quarter his salary. That being said, his salary is what it is and just think, Oilers fans: it could have been Thomas Vanek, whose boxcar numbers are almost identical for yet another 3mm per year.
Dennis - and others - have put one of Penner's key issues crudely, saying he's fat. While I don't agree with the statement, it is fair to say that Penner's conditioning isn't there - and this as much as results is probably driving his icetime. But. remember Billy Guerin's comments after his first game as an Oiler? I couldn't find any quotes in Lexis/Nexis, but they were something along the lines of being exhausted, not being used to the pace. Any team with a guy like Shawn Horcoff behind at least two or three other forwards on the speed depth chart is fast. While I don't think Penner will ever endanger Horcoff's spot, never mind Cogliano or Sanderson, I do think he and his linemates will adjust.
I don't want to rely on hearsay "saw him good" and boxcar numbers as my sole evidence, but I will point out that 46 shots is good for third on the team - some of those have got to start going in, although comparing to his career shooting percentage is dicey. It's probably safe to say though, that if #27 emulated the former #94 on the power play, his point totals would go up.
Looking at 5 on 5 data, Penner's fourth among forwards, slightly behind Horcoff, Torres, and Hemsky. Horcoff's playing with Penner now, so we can likely expect them to converge. The numbers would also appear to support my perception that Penner's doing ok defensively: he's got a GF/on of 3.39, GA/on of 2.61 - he's outscoring at even strength. GF/off is 1.79, GA/off is 3.12 - the team is much worse at scoring when Penner's not on the ice, and is worse at preventing goals too. By way of comparison, Horcoff's numbers are 3.39/2.42, 1.61/3.23 - so Penner's right in line with his new linemate. Considering the team as a whole is in the minuses, Penner's doing pretty well. (Stoll's numbers are horrific, for instance.)
I'm not going to talk about the power play; the team's woes at that this season are well-documented, and while Penner's sure not helping there, I don't think he's hurting the team either. He doesn't kill penalties much, so no point in talking about that.
So, while Penner's not earning his fat paycheque, the numbers say he's not holding the team back, either. He's not making Lowe look good, and you can argue whether he's worth the money - probably not, for a rebuilding team - but relative to his teammates, he's doing just fine. Why's the team so lousy then? That's a matter for another time.
Last night's game Penner had a couple of decent chances and rag-dolled Phaneuf. That last alone should warm the cockles of any Oiler fan's heart on a dark winter night. He's made some smart defensive plays too - like a lot of college guys familiar to us Oilers fans, he's pretty good in his own end. I don't think he'll ever be confused with Fernando Pisani, Shawn Horcoff, Todd Marchant, Mike Grier, or (had to say it) Craig MacTavish, but you never know. He's just turned 25, old for a hockey player with essentially only 1.5 NHL seasons behind him, young for a Stanley Cup winner and a fellow whose signing bonus last year was likely more than a lot of us will make in five years. Could be by the end of his contract, he will be making everybody look good. Oilers fans had better hope so.
(Image from ESPN.com, credit to AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Richard Lam.)