With assists on three tallies in a single playoff game against Colorado last season, the hockey world had an overnight introduction to future Anaheim Ducks star Dustin Penner.
“He’s a great passer,” said Joffrey Lupul, Penner’s former Ducks teammate and postseason linemate. “You don’t think of him like that because he’s so physically imposing, but when he gets the puck and he wins those battles he’s got some pretty good vision.”
Penner’s vision would help the Ducks sweep the second-round series against Colorado before being eliminated in the Western Conference Finals. The left wing would finish his first NHL postseason with three goals and nine points in 13 games.
But the road to the NHL and his seeming overnight success, was in fact a long road paved in adversity.
“He’s a kid who didn’t make his bantam team,” said Bob Murray, the Ducks Vice President of Hockey Operations. “From what I understand, he didn’t make his midget team. He’s just a late bloomer…He’s just figuring out about himself about just how good he can be.”
Getting others to give him a chance wasn’t always so easy. Penner was cut from a number of teams including his junior hockey team, a virtual death sentence for those with NHL dreams, forcing him to play for his high school hockey team. After high school, Penner’s road took him to play for a junior college team as a walk on.
But if the story on Dustin Penner is one of adversity, then it is also a story of persistence, following a dream and taking advantage of every shot you get. It was his decision to play at the junior college which led to Penner eventually being recruited to play at the University of Maine.
Undrafted out of Maine and again when it looked like Penner’s hockey career was finally over, the Winkler, Manitoba native earned an entry-level contract with the Ducks that allowed him to play in the AHL. In his first season in the AHL with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, Penner began to adjust, scoring 28 points in 77 games during the lockout. Then in his follow-up season last year, he truly blossomed scoring more goals (38) in 20 fewer games than points in the entire previous season.
Penner attributed the sudden transformation to learning the professional game.
“It was a learning process for me,” he said. “Learning the speed of the game at each level and adjusting halfway through the season and finding my comfort zone. I seem to find that in the second half of the year.”
Former teammate Lupul played with Penner during both seasons and witnessed the transformation first hand.
“[Two years ago] he was a little bit…uh…raw,” Lupul said laughing, “or unpolished. But to see where he is now is unbelievable!”
While Penner broke out last season, he entered the 2006-07 season in unfamiliar territory. No longer the underdog, Penner was widely expected to make the Anaheim Ducks team, one many believe will contend for the Stanley Cup. He has also been mentioned as an early candidate for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the best rookie in the NHL. But the Ducks prospect has taken the expectations in stride.
“I’m just dealing with it on just a day to day basis. We have a really good team here and [the expectations are] going to effect everyone in the room here. Everyone’s play is going to increase…it’s exciting to be a part of a team that is so talented. Everyone’s going to [need to] step up and they’re going to put it on themselves just like me.”
While the Ducks have been pleased with the 6’4, 245-pound forward’s quick development, they have asked him to play more physically and to be more consistent.
“We just constantly ask him to use his size to his advantage,” said Murray, “to have a little bit of an edge to his game. That has nothing to do with fighting. That’s just have a little mean streak, show your size, use your size, when your players have a problem on the ice make sure you get in right there with them, help them out. When he plays with a little edge, he is very effective.”
Murray’s request that Penner play with more of an edge is sure to be taken to heart. The University of Maine’s “Most Determined Player” award winner in 2001-02 has a knack for adapting and for constantly improving his game.
“Anyone who’s played with him can’t believe how much he’s improved [in one season],” said Lupul, “and how coachable he’s been. I mean he’s really learned the game a lot and really worked on his skills a lot and I can see him being a pretty dominant player [this] year.”
But for this season, Penner’s focus hasn’t just been on the physical side of the sport.
“If you have the natural ability to make the NHL, it’s the mental ability that’ll keep you in the NHL,” he said. “Discipline and focus. That’s what I’ve been working on right now. Being consistent night in and night out.”
So far so good. Individually, Penner has scored two points in his first five games this season and has helped the Ducks to a 3-0-2 record. He has been paired throughout most of the preseason and regular season on a line with right wing Todd Marchant and center Ryan Shannon. This line combination was the Ducks’ most potent during the preseason.
“Both players have great speed,” said Penner, “and for a guy like me, all I have to do is create space and it works out nice we find each other on the ice and they get open.”
While Penner’s focus has shifted to the regular season, he has not forgotten the long road that has brought him here.
“It definitely helped to come from the bottom up and not have some of the expectations that go along with making the best teams all the time in Canada. I would’ve liked to, but it was probably better for my development to go the college route and now it seems to be paying off.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.