With Craig MacTavish (and his player criticisms) out the door, there are a few players on this team who are going to have a fresh, clean slate in the NHL again and another chance to make their name for themselves. The biggest (pun not intended) opportunity for improvement this year will be Dustin Penner.
Last season, Penner was publicly criticised by Craig MacTavish in the interview heard ’round the NHL: “He’s not competitive enough or fit enough to help us, so why put him back in? He’s never been fit enough to help us. We thought the contract was a starting point for him, but he views it as a finish line. I can’t watch it, certainly not for another two and a half years”. We all know the story behind that, and how well MacTavish’s motivational speech worked. So why do we want this guy back?
Well, for one, we’re stuck with him. But, for two, he actually can be a factor on this team.
“But Dustin Penner is a fat ass”, you say. Well, Dan Tencer had a recent interview with Simon Bennett (Oilers Strength and Conditioning Consultant). After the interview, Dan Tencer’s twittered: “Simon Bennett reports that Dustin Penner has had great dedication in his off-season training”. To me it seemed to be pretty standard fluff, however it certainly is refreshing to hear when compared to stories about Dustin Penner being a meatball. Mind you, it should also be noted that last year reports at the start of the season said that Dustin Penner was in great shape (I can’t find the link, but I believe even Lowe said this). It did sound like from the Bennett interview though that Dustin Penner was very commited to improving his conditioning. So let’s look past that, for now, and wait until the season starts. But chances are, yes, he’s still a fat ass.. but he’s a more streamline, toned fat ass.
So let’s talk about what he has done right: the powerplay.
Ignoring the players that saw limited PP action, Dustin Penner had the highest 5-on-4 GFON/60 (powerplay goals the team scored while he was on the ice, per 60 minutes of ice time he saw) at 6.88. He’s still the number one option on our powerplay with that big-body presence of his. As such, I’d slot him in the #1 PP LW spot and never take him off of it. He’s consistently made the powerplay better. Whether or not he’s the one getting the points, his huge-frame parked in front of the net is going to wreak havoc on a goaltender, especially with Sheldon Souray raining hell from the blueline.
The powerplay also noticeably suffers with him off the ice. In the 5-on-4 GFOFF/60 (powerplay goals the team scored while he was off the ice, per 60 minutes of powerplay ice time) category, Dustin Penner ranked in just barely behind Gagner (5.36 and 5.34, respectively), and the Big Bomber, Souray (4.13). If I’m writing the powerplay lines next year, our top powerplay is Penner Gagner Hemsky. Book it.
So outside of the powerplay, what options are there for Penner? What do we do with him at even strength?
The top line: Penner already has proven chemistry with Hemsky, and vice versa. In fact, I would almost say that Hemsky’s ability to be Hemsky is effected by whether Penner is out there or not. The truth is, Penner really does free up ice for Hemsky. Proof of that is in last year’s “Even Strength Goals For With Teammate” stat, provided by Hockeyanalysis. The ES GF/20 with Hemsky and Penner of 1.244 is his higher than that of any other player Hemsky has been on the ice with (aside from Peckham, and we can obviously discount that number). That’s right. Hemsky’s line works best if Penner is one of the linemates. Dustin Penner obviously needs to produce more to be as effective as possible, but this is a telling sign that Hemsky (and other teammates) benefit from Penner as much as Penner benefits from Hemsky. Sometimes being that guy parked in front of the net is a thankless job.
Powerplay Specialist: Feed him large powerplay minutes. He wouldn’t be the first guy used as a “hired gun” in a specialty role. Unfortunately he may not be as effective at it as some of the other examples (Kotalik instantly comes to mind), but he’ll serve the purpose well on our current roster. As for even strength, his ice time would be dependent on his on level of play vs. that of other members of this team. Feed him as many minutes as he proves worthy. And if he doesn’t come out to play, bury him in the bottom six.
Pair him with 1 or 2 of the kids: Some have suggested playing him on line 2 LW with Gagner at centre. On the right side would likely be Nilsson. This has been tried before, and again, going back to Hockeyanalysis, it worked fairly well. Much like we saw with Hemsky, one of Gagner’s best linemates is actually Penner. Gagner was rather effective last year with 3 different players: Dustin Penner (The combo of Gagner and Penner had an ES GF/20 of 1.073), Ales Kotalik (1.205) and Marc Pouliot (1.332). Granted, Gagner hadn’t really played enough at even strength with any of these guys (111:52 TOI with Penner, 120:05 with Pouliot, 83:01 with Kotalik), but that’s still a pretty good reason to think “why not try Gagner with Penner more?”.
Really, believe it or not, Dustin Penner makes certain players better. This may come as a surprise, but there are very few players that don’t see the benefits of playing with Dustin Penner. According to Hockeyanalysis‘ stats, the only player on our roster that Penner spent considerable time with (more than 100 minutes of icetime) and had a higher GF/20 without Penner than with Penner was offensive-giant Jason Strudwick (but hey, the same could be said of Hemsky in that case).
Food for thought folks. Dustin Penner is a complementary player. He definitely needs to put the puck in the net more, but his ability to make a difference often goes unrecognized because we like to look at raw numbers – goals, and assists. But if you look a bit deeper, you can see that Penner isn’t all that he seems… but in a good way.