NEWARK, N.J. – Everything about Dustin Penner seems big. He scored the big goal that brought the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup Final. He has a big smile, a big gap where one of his front teeth should be and a big, bushy, brown playoff beard. He has a big frame – 6-foot-4 and 2 …
He garbled the number with a big laugh. Remember how he hurt his back by eating a big stack of delicious pancakes? A big reason why he hasn't played big or lived up to his big contract or met all the big expectations is that he has been too big.
But another reason is that he used to be small. He has been a little guy trapped in a big man's body. Once a skill player cut from teams as a kid, he suddenly sprouted and took an unusual path to the NHL, where he is supposed to be a power forward. He has had to grow into himself.
He had to wait for that weight, and at 29, he's still learning how to use it.
"The consensus would be that I could throw it around more," Penner said. "Even I know that myself. It's just that growing up as a skill player you have that mindset that you want to make a play, you want to do something with the puck."
Penner grew up, so to speak, playing a little guy's game. He programmed moves into muscle memory to avoid hits, not throw hits, because he didn't want to be knocked off the puck or hurt. He said he was 5-foot-6 and 120 pounds in Grade 11. A native of Winkler, Man., he was cut by his local junior team three times. He never thought he would go from Canadian high school hockey to the NHL; he can't think of anyone else who has.
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He spent two years at a junior college in North Dakota – Minot State-Bottineau. By then, he was much bigger – 6-foot-3, 215 pounds – but he wasn't much better. "Ever seen Bambi?" he said. He was like a baby deer on ice. His teammates laughed at him, joking that he had come out of nowhere, that he had just started playing. How quickly did he shed that? "It wasn't that quick," he said.
But he earned a scholarship to a big school, the University of Maine, and by then he was 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. Assistant coach Grant Stanbrook discovered him at an evaluation camp in Saskatoon, Sask., and told him he didn't realize how strong he was – that he could take hits and hold onto the puck now, that he didn't have to be afraid of getting hurt anymore.
Penner had developed his hands. He had developed his playmaking. He had developed his evasiveness. He had learned to keep his head on a swivel. Now he had to learn to use all those skills while going into the corners and in front of the net.
"I was always the smallest guy around my friends," Penner said, "And when you grow into that other frame, you can do more of the other stuff consistently and not have to worry."
Now, that should be an advantage, not a disadvantage, right? Penner signed with the Anaheim Ducks as an undrafted free agent. In his first full season, 2006-07, he scored 29 goals in the regular season and won the Stanley Cup. That's why the Edmonton Oilers signed him to a five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet to steal him away. He scored as many as 32 goals for the Oilers. That's why Kings general manager Dean Lombardi traded for him before the deadline last season, giving up prospect Colton Teubert, a first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder.
When things have gone well, this has never seemed to be a problem or an excuse, and when things have gone badly, his conditioning and commitment have been the issue. Craig MacTavish scratched him because of it in Edmonton. Darryl Sutter scratched him because of it after taking over in L.A. this season, telling reporters: "He went out of the lineup because he was horse(crap), so he'd better step up to the plate or he might not get another look. It's simple. When we preach work and those things, and everybody does it, then he better do it."
Penner had only seven goals and 17 points in 65 games this season. The pancakes didn't help. But neither did the divorce filing by the beautiful wife who made them, actress Jessica Welch, and maybe confidence has been an issue, too.
Fans and coaches see the big man and expect him to play a big man's game, but deep down, Penner is still the little guy who played Canadian high school hockey and never thought he would make it here. Maybe he still had to prove something to himself as well as Sutter, who he said arrived with "different levels of a fresh slate" – one for guys like captain Dustin Brown and Mike Richards, another for guys like him.
"Everybody comes with a reputation," Penner said. "I had to try and beat mine."
Penner watches Brown to see how he balances being physical and making plays. He watches Anze Kopitar to see how he handles his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame. He said he paid close attention to his role, what was expected of him.
Eventually, Penner, the little guy from Manitoba, meshed on a personal level with Sutter, the farmer from Alberta. And in these playoffs, he started to play at a higher level again. He has chipped in three goals and 10 points in 15 games.
"If you look back and look at why he's scored before, he's a big guy with good hands who can get to the scoring areas and pay the price in the critical areas where you have to score," said Kings assistant coach John Stevens. "I think you're seeing more and more of that in his game."
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Said Kings sniper Jeff Carter: "He has a huge body. He's pretty tough to stop. … He's been doing everything that the coaches have asked of him. He's been getting in the hard areas, winning battles."
Penner said it feels good to prove people wrong, but also to prove people right – the people who believed in him, like Lombardi and Sutter and his teammates, because when he took criticism, they felt it, too.
"It's tough to insulate them, I think, because you're not around them all the time," Penner said. "They're not in your life 24 hours a day. So they have time to develop their own thoughts and opinions on your situation, why you're not performing the way they want you to or they think you could. So there's not much you can do other than go out there and try and change the path you're on."
It takes a big man to do that.
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