Dustin Penner: Perception And Performance

The fat jokes and the comments about entitlement disappeared last season as Dustin Penner put in a remarkable performance for a miserable club – exploding in the early going and then settling into a role as the club’s only bona fide offensive player down the stretch. Just over a dozen games into 2010-11, Penner hasn’t put up the same shiny scoring totals, and the comments have started to creep back into the picture.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that some of the criticism at this early juncture has been earned. I pointed to the struggles of the power play’s first unit prior to the Carolina game, and Penner hasn’t produced there – though he’s hardly alone in that.

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Aside from his lack of power play production, though, I don’t know what people were expecting from Penner. His ice-time at even-strength this year has been drastically reduced, largely due to the influx of rookie talent and the desire to give them NHL minutes, but Penner’s still scoring at nearly the same rate as last season, and the puck is still generally in the right end of the rink when he’s on the ice. Here’s a quick look at Penner’s 5-on-5 scoring rates as an Oiler, as well as his relative Corsi:

Season EV PTS/60 Rel. Corsi/60
2010-11 2.16 19.0
2009-10 2.40 17.0
2008-09 1.71 16.3
2007-08 1.34 10.5

Anything above 2.0 is a really good 5-on-5 scoring rate – between 2.14 and 2.18 so far this season we find Penner, Patrick Kane, Jason Arnott, Cory Stillman, Daniel Alfredsson, Scott Hartnell and Tuomo Ruutu. Heck, in the early going on any given even-strength shift Penner has been more likely to record a point than Alexander Ovechkin (2.10 PTS/60) or Evgeni Malkin (2.07 PTS/60). While I certainly don’t expect Penner to be ahead of those two at the end of the season, I do think it’s fair to say that his scoring at even-strength has been just fine. Penner’s goal-scoring hasn’t been a problem either – he’s on pace for 32, the same number as last year.

I think a big part of the problem is the style Penner plays. He doesn’t look impressive; big men always seem to look slow and Penner can appear sluggish out on the ice. Take the game against Carolina as an example. I was less than thrilled with his performance, and Robin Brownlee was in the same boat. But then I read this tidbit from Bruce McCurdy:

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At even strength was on the ice for 21 attempted shots by the Oilers, just 8 for the ‘Canes; and was on the bench for 18 attempted shots for the Oilers, 37 for the ‘Canes. Read that again, and then tell me Penner had a bad game against the Hurricanes.

In other words, with Penner on the ice the Oilers had an almost 3:1 advantage in shots, and with him off the ice they were getting outshot more than 2:1. That’s craziness, and it’s why he always has such a good Corsi rating – the Oilers spend lots of time in the offensive zone when he’s on the ice (well, that and early on Craig MacTavish used him a lot in the offensive zone). And personally, I’ll take visually unappealing but effective over flashy and ineffective every day of the week.

Is Penner a perfect player? Of course not. He isn’t physically punishing, and given his age I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that to ever change. He doesn’t zip around like Marc-Andre Bergeron or Andrew Cogliano, either – he’s a low-energy player. And as we’ve already mentioned, his power play unit isn’t scoring as of yet this season. But despite those warts, he’s an effective hockey player and as long as he keeps scoring and moving the puck in the right direction I’ll be a fan – and continue to shake my head at the apparent need some fans have to call him fat and lazy.

  • Dyckster

    EVERY (and I mean EVERY) time folks start pooping on Penner, JW or some other stats gurue writes an article such as this.

    The guy is a player, I realize the positive stats he had on Tuesday is a small sample size, BUT he consistently has shown those types of numbers throughout the last 24 months or so. The guy is who he is, a gifted offensive player who scores at a better than average pace, while at the same time tak’in care of bidness in his own zone. We need to quit lamenting at the fact he LOOKS so slow and lazy, he obviously isn’t.

  • Dan the Man

    Is it just me or has Penner’s PK time been reduced this year as well?

    He does a nice job in his own zone and with the struggles of the PK I don’t understand why he isn’t used more in this role?

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    I think a big part of the problem is the style Penner plays.

    I think this is the biggest problem. People seen glimpses of what he did last year and want to see those dominant performances again this year. The problem is while Penner was doing those brillant plays last year, he still played lazy. Now because he doesn’t look exciting his lazy play is multiplied.

    On a sidenote about Penner. We always here this talk that the players have to respect each other and know when to hold up on the hit. I’d say Penner has to be a guy that fits into this group. I notice multiple times a game that he will skate away instead of hitting someone from behind. Fans probably hate this, but if more players played like this I think there would be less injuries from late hits/hit from behind.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    As a sidenote, I have to say that I like this article. I didn’t like the timing of the Bulin one and maybe this one would’ve been better placed first, but either way it’s nice to see someone taking some positives out of a bad game.

  • Chris.

    With Gagner, Hemsky, Hall, MPS, and Eberle ideally being in your top six moving forward… the Oilers need the big man to play like a big man.

    Don’t get me wrong, Penner is a good player: but it’s pretty clear he isn’t wired correctly to be the true power forward this team so desperately needs.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      Agreed, he’s not playing like how the team needs him to play (based on roster constrution).

      Though I don’t think the answer is to subtract him, it’s to add another big body that can score 20+ and does play with that edge.

      Lets pry Hartnell out of Philly for next year.

  • Gary-TechSupport

    Why can’t he give 100% every night like Horcoff? Some shifts he looks like he can fly, others he looks like he doesn’t care. If he brought it every night he would be one of the best power forwards in the league.

    That’s the difference between a guy like him and Horcoff. Real heart, real work ethic. For that I appreciate Horcs even more.

    • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

      It’s probably one of the reasons no one picked up Penner until he was 22. Even then I’m looking at hockeydb and somehow he goes from a 28 point player inn 77 games to a 84 point player with 39 goals in 57 games. How exactly does that happen?

      Must have a switch in him.

      • Shapeman

        I can’t remember when exactly but I remember hearing an interview on the Gregor show about Penner and they said he was only 5’9″ or something in highschool or college and then he had a growth spurt. Could be him getting used to his size in those 2 years and could explain why he’s not big and nasty.

    • RCN

      It would be interesting to see the underlying numbers of some of Penner’s linemates this season… with and without Penner on their wing.

      Like Tim, I believe he got a raw deal in past years, but I haven’t been too impressed with him this year.

    • Horcsky

      Cerebral is the perfect word to describe Penner. I was just thinking about another player who seemed to be in slo-mo out there all the time: CFP. One of the more cerebral players in the game. In fact, the cerebral players who can outthink their oppenents and read plays seem to be the most successfull. DP ain’t no CFP, but he does seem to have good reads and anticipation.

      Although I’m an admitted Horcoff booster, reading plays is an area that he seems to lack at times. If he read plays and anticipated a little better, he wouldn’t have to work so hard all the time, and might have more energy when he identified an advantage to get to the spot he needs to create an offensive chance.

  • I have to say I disagree 100%, he looks lazy because he is lazy. He looks like he is going through the motions because he is just going through the motions. I don’t need a scientific calculator to see there is little to no effort this season.

    In past years I think Penner got a raw deal, you can not make someone something they are not. Penner is not physical, he is not fast. But he is a big man that can control the puck down low when he is in to it. And at his age he should really be into it a lot more. But what we can expect is effort.

  • Dyckster

    And (knock on wood), most fail to mention Penner has been very reliable as far as games missed due to injury.**

    **As I write this I’m knocking on wood..seriously, I am. I’M NOT LYING!

      • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

        That’s a fair question on a one game basis (or any other small sample). But when he’s consitantly doing it, it should be clear he gets credit.

    • Dan the Man

      I admit most of the stats you speak of do not mean alot to me. Not saying they don’t have value but when I watch games, I watch them. I don’t have a need to break them down any further then that.

      But is there a stat or a number that can explain to me if the puck is in front of Penner why he does not skate hard to get it?? Is there a stat out there that can explain to me that no matter where Penner goes he goes there very slowly?? I find it odd that in a 7-1 game so many people are so quick to defend Penner, was he there best player?? Who cares the team lost 7-1. I rewatched the game and outside of a few shifts with Hemsky Penner was invisible. But so was the whole team.

      When you have a team full of young players having someone who gives a honest effort holds alot of effort.

      • Adam D

        Now I’m not one for newfangled gadgets like space telescopes and global voyages. I’m not saying they don’t have value, but when I look at the Earth I look at it. I don’t have to break it down any farther than that.

        I have never seen the Earth curve. I think it is fairly obvious to everyone that looks around them that the Earth is flat, not round. Anyone who says otherwise is obviously just trying to defend their precious technology.

        • Shapeman

          So because Willis’ number machine says Penner had a good game in a 7-1 loss I should just take his word for it?? And to go one step further these number crunchers who are recognized by themselves only have what you are calling precious technology??

          I would compare it more to the Weather man saying it is going to rain, when if fact I have looked outside all day and it never did rain. Precious technology letting us down again.

    • Dan the Man

      I’m not Tim S but I’ll throw in my say. Lazy used generally is an exaggeration, he’s always breathing hard and sweating out there. But there’s no doubt that he posseses less drive than others. Accordingly those others are his teammates and that is who he will be compared to; so relative to that standard lazy would be a good word.

      One can give less than your most and perform well at the same time…that might seem to be completely illogical, but I think it’s true. He’s a man who knows how to use his size to keep control of the puck, he works well down low, he goes to the front of the net, all of this results in the puck in the right zone and a good corsi. Plain and simple, he’s a good hockey player. But what I would say is that if he had a little more drive and work ethic those shots would translate into more goals, he would be dominant. He’s a solid player who’s useful for any team especially this one…but you can’t watch the man every game and know there isn’t a little more in him.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Good perspective, Penner has to be the toughest guy to grade for the “I watch em” crowd.

    I agree he usually looks weak on the ice and would bet even the most astute hockey mind would turn thier nose up to Penner if they simply watched him play… however he constantly ends up with a positive performance.

    Like you said, I’ll take effective over flashy any day.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Penner is the poster child for the debate between old school scouting and the more statistically inclined.

    I saw Penner twice this year (I live in Chicago) and while we won both games, he didn’t “jump off the ice” to my eye. But looking at a TV replay on my DVR and thinking through Penner’s value, you see him be strong on the puck. You also see defenses forced to shift tactics to account for him, opening up ice and shot opportunities for others.

    I hope we keep Penner, because I think he is a valuable asset. He is the epitome of the Moneypuck approach, re-evaluating visual evidence based on statistical analysis. If we see someone shine statistically, I’d rather we watch with fresh eyes and determine why that player is so successful rather than de-bunk the statistical approach. I think we need a marriage of old school scouting and new age analysis to win going forwards.

  • Dyckster

    Hopefully the rest of the league views Penner like a lot of fickle fans do (exit last year’s bandwagon on your right) so we can re-sign him at an affordable rate in two years if he is not traded. Big players that have good hockey sense and good hands are not that easy to find.

  • @ Jason Gregor:

    Penner led the team in the game against Carolina. Here are the Corsi +/- numbers for all the forwards in that game:

    Penner: +13
    Eberle: +9
    Cogliano: +6
    Brule: -2
    MacIntyre: -2
    Paajarvi: -4
    Jones: -5
    Hemsky: -6
    Gagner: -6
    Stortini: -6
    Hall: -7
    Fraser: -9

  • Dustin Penner is a lot of things a team needs. Big, strong on the puck, can score, is smart defensively, can win a face off or two, but yet he’s a piece that a lot of people want to get rid of. How many teams have players his size, with his skill set? Not many, and the ones that do are in no hurry to get rid of them.

    • Horcsky

      Yeah, most critics ’round these parts can’t get past his two deficiencies (speed and effort).

      Perhaps it stems from an Oilers fan and organizational philosophy. We like speedy players like detroit likes europeans. Could be that we are in need of a paradigm shift in our drafting and development, i.e. not everyone needs to have good wheels. That seems to big the biggest critique of guys in our system who don’t make it. That they have good skills and smarts, but poor wheels. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking that speed (and effort) wins games. Perhaps positional players with hockey sense would be better than speedy try-hards?

  • Dan the Man

    Really good point Horcsky.

    Who would you rather have on your hockey team?

    Cogliano – Tries hard and has great speed but not so great results.


    Penner – Doesn’t appear to try that hard and doesn’t appear very fast but has much better results.

    I’d take Penner any day.

  • Crash

    I’ve gone thru this defend Penner stance on pretty much every attack he has faced so far this year on these pages.

    Like the article says, Penner is not lazy, he’s a big man and big men in the league can seem sluggish.

    There’s no way that a lazy hockey player could get away with being lazy for very long. It would end up showing up in the stat page. But the fact is, Penner puts up positive stats, from scoring to good defensive numbers. He also seems to be able to raise the level of his linemates, plain and simple.