Conventional Wisdom

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 03: Dustin Penner #27 of the Edmonton Oilers awaits a face off against the Phoenix Coyotes during the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on April 3, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Oilers 3-2 in an overtime shootout. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

In a 2009-10 season that had a lot of disappointments, the play of Dustin Penner never managed to qualify. In fact, the previously much-maligned winger had the best season of his career, and transformed himself in the public’s eye from impossible to move contract to best forward on the team (at least, while Hemsky was out).

It wasn’t a development that many would have predicted. One local columnist called Penner the “NHL poster boy for comfort zones and inconsistency,” and I think it’s fair to say that the majority would have agreed with him on that. Various commenters at OilersNation had other descriptions of the big forward:

  • “Fat and useless”
  • “Heartless”
  • “Useless”
  • “Personally, I don’t think we need him on the team”
  • “A powder-puff big man with little pride in his reputation or performance”
  • “Penner sucks”
  • “What he doesn’t have, and it’s all too apparent when watching him play, are essential elements: grit, physicality, effort, motivation, consistency, hustle.”
  • “Penner is crap”

And that was selected quotes from the comments section of just one article.

The reality is that Penner at his worst was never as bad as was often claimed. He certainly was a flawed player during his first two seasons as an Oiler, but at the same time he was also a player who moved the puck the right way, a player who was an asset on the power play, and a player who time and again was misused by the coaching staff – especially in 2008-09, where perhaps they were compensating for giving him too much rope in 2007-08. (For more on Penner and the coaches, I recommend Michael Farber’s excellent Sports Illustrated write-up.)

Of course, some of the blame must fall on Penner as well, who simply didn’t put up enough offence to justify his salary and didn’t contribute enough in other areas to compensate for that.

But the point here is less about blame, and more about how perceptions of a player can change dramatically over the course of a season, or even less – sometimes permanently, sometimes not. A few Oilers examples:

In 2007-08, Mathieu Garon was a star that one very plugged-in local media guy suggested needed to be locked up to a three year, $3.0 million per season deal as soon as possible. Dwayne Roloson, on the other hand, was regarded as a cap boat anchor who needed to be given away to the first sucker willing to take him. By trade deadline the following year, Garon was gone, and Dwayne Roloson was the team’s most valuable player.

Again in 2007-08, three young players – Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, and Robert Nilsson – caught fire down the stretch and helped the Oilers compete for a playoff spot despite a lousy first half of the season. The three were quickly dubbed the “Kid Line,” Craig MacTavish was ripped for not putting them together and giving them ice-time sooner, and fans started plotting out the future of these guys. Meanwhile, Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner, who were taking all the tough defensive zone work to give those players success, were largely criticized for their inability to produce. Two seasons later, Gagner’s all-round play has improved, Andrew Cogliano has regressed, and Robert Nilsson was just bought out. Meanwhile Reasoner and Stoll were tossed away and became important pieces of new teams, and the Oilers have spent the last two years learning why not having any penalty-killers or faceoff aces is a bad thing.

Going back now to the summer of 2006, Joffrey Lupul was a local boy, a one-shot scorer the organization coveted, and the centre-piece of the return for Chris Pronger, the best player to wear an Oilers uniform since Messier. A year later he was unceremoniously dumped to Philadelphia after a disastrous season from every possible angle. Now, he’s found his way back to Anaheim, and he has yet to improve on his 2005-06 sophomore season.

There are other examples: Shawn Horcoff’s disappearing offence, minor-league journeyman Fernando Pisani becoming a key piece in a Stanley Cup run, Mike Peca’s descent from being arguably the Oilers’ best centre before he’d ever played a game with the club down to the fourth line and then his playoff renaissance, bit players Ray Whitney and Miroslav Satan turning into stars elsewhere, Todd Marchant finding a scoring touch, and the list – even just from the Oilers – goes on.

The point to all of this (and there is one) is that there is no certainty about any of these players. All we have are indicators and past results, and while a willingness to examine the whole picture and not lean too heavily on what just happened can help, everybody gets surprised by at least some of the players on the roster. I was less surprised by Penner than many others, but I was taken aback by Gilbert Brule’s often exceptional performance, and surprised by the lousy performances of players like Horcoff and Cogliano.

All I’m saying is that before we get too eager to write guys off, or picking out new franchise cornerstones, each of these players has the ability to change our minds – and it might not take all that long.

  • Crackenbury

    Great article Mr. Willis. I am of the opinion that old NHL coaches are barbaric in their treatment of players. This is the 21st century, you can’t go around embarrassing people and calling them names and expect them to excel. MacT was a dinosaur, as was Quinn. The new breed of coach is a teacher, not a yeller. This is what one ignorant fan named Rick commented on your Mar 09 article:

    “Poor Dustin, such a misunderstood young man. If only he was treated like the superstar he is all would be right in the universe.

    Better?”

    My guess is some of the fans could use a dose of modern psychology.

  • Crackenbury

    You know that Dwight Shrute kind of guy at work that goes and brown-noses with the boss and becomes buddies and then gets the promotion? Here’s looking at you Ross Creek. “I’m so smart, DP should be a center, I’m hijacking Willis’ thread, even though he just wrote a very insightful article that I am completely incapable of writing.”
    Willis, please come back, and take your rightful spot back from this rube.

    • Rob...

      Give him a break. If you extrapolate the logic of Willis into the world of blogging, then by next season RossCreek may be one of this sites best contributors… you never know.

  • @ Team Hall & Team Seguin

    Two voices, 1 IP address… hmm.

    Is this where I threaten to ban you?

    I’m not sure I’ve ever proclaimed myself to be a blogger. I wrote a single entry that happened to draw some reaction on a slow news day. Maybe I’ll do another one some day… maybe not. That’s why Willis is in the “pro’s” and I’m playing “afternoon shinny”.

    HAVE A NICE DAY!

    **trololo**

  • Crackenbury

    The group of writers running this site and trying to make a viable business out of it must be cringing after the past few days. There’s about a dozen hard-core ON posters that treat the sight as their own personal chat room and go out of their way to ridicule other posters not part of the clique. Now it seem the writers themselves are becoming open targets. Maybe some of you should think about investing your own time and money and start your own site where you can spend all day talking about how stupid everyone else is.

    It’s okay to disagree with another poster or the writer of an article, but show a little respect when you’re doing it. Otherwise this site is going to go the way of many blogs before it and disappear altogether.

    • Still complaining about the Nation? There isnt a little sign in the clubhouse that says “No Crackenburys Allowed!!”, you’re welcome to add to the discussion without directly complaining about the discussion itself.

      Your theory about this site disappearing because of the commenters holds no water. This site has grown in popularity despite the months of battling between commenters like myself and Crash.

      There is no clique. It isnt about running others out. It doesnt matter if it’s Ender, myself, or David S: A stupid idea is treated with all the respect deserved of a stupid idea.

      Either add to the discussion or get out, but dont make a point of complaining about it in every thread.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    [waits for the smoke to clear]

    I like the idea of having Dustin down the middle, especially if he could work on his draws and get it somewhere north of 55%. One has to wonder where his game would be today if he had a mean streak.

  • Ducey

    JW, I agree 100%

    We always go over the deepend criticizing players.

    I expect that at least one of Nilsson, Pouliot, or POS might bounce back. If Souray can cleanup his mess, he could too.

    Given the Oilers are in a rebuild, they might take a chance on a couple of players coming off down years elsewhere.

    And RC, the more thoughtful threads the better. Keep them coming.

    Is there anything the cabal around here can do to clear out the trolls or at least nuke their comments?

  • SurfacetoAirMissile

    @Jonathan Willis

    I understand your point JW, and I certainly have been guilty of writing a player off too soon aka Roli The Goalie or conversely hanging on to false hope that a player would develop into a star when he shows flashes of brilliance once every 10 games ala Robert Nilson. Some players though have me feeling like I’m Bipolar! Take Mr. Grebishkov for instance…. His first full season with the Oil saw him cough up the puck behind his own blue line every second shift. I was pissed at the guy and even though friends and media would keep citing the fact he was young and as a defencemen needed to be given a chance to develop I had already written him off. Then 2 seasons ago he did a 180 and it seemed like he had somehow figured out his problems and became one of the Oilers best defencemen, putting up some good offensive numbers while eliminating most of his gaffs in his own end. By the end of that season I became a fan of the guy and was willing to eat crow. Then last season he completely regressed to a point I was cringing every time he handled the puck and I was back leading the charge to run him out of town! (Mission accomplished) I’m sure by the end of next season he will have me feeling regret and wishing the Oil would have kept his services and would have signed him to a long term deal. Argh!

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    people seem to forget that Penner went a long stretch during last season where he didn’t score many points. i thought he had a pretty good year EXCEPT for that stretch.

  • cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan

    Penner an important part of Oilers over next couple of seasons ,and continued strong play could see him top 40 goals this season .

    Off topic somewhat, Brule going to arbitration and hoping to get Kulemin type money to to play here . $2.35 M/year over the $840,000 the Oilers offered him in qualification is pretty significant ! Is he significant enough to retain if arbitrator awards him Kulemin type money ?

  • thunderbirdiv17

    I think that penner is a valuable player to the Oilers. I’m ok with him giving center a run, really if it doesn’t work then what’s to lose.

    Also on a side note does anyone know if we’re going to see Comrie back? Also updates on bulin.

  • thunderbirdiv17

    If Brule awarded $2.35 M by arbitration , what might Gagner and Cogs command ? Taking into account maybe sitting out Souray and we have a significant hit on cap over $10 M i believe possible . Sure would limit our options to add additional useable and reliable parts again this season if we retain all of them for any length of time .

    How do we solve this forseeable conundrum and still move forward with some wiggle space ?

  • Ender

    Archaeologuy wrote:

    There is no clique.

    ~There isn’t? Aw, shucks. Just when I was starting to feel accepted and all.~

    Truth is, there are three kinds of commentators on here: The people with something intelligent to say, the people who just want someone to acknowledge that they exist, and the trolls who enjoy picking a fight. When deciding which one I am going to be, I always remember the time-tested phrase:

    “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

    I haven’t been commenting near as much lately because everything about a specific topic I might possibly intelligently say has been said by someone ahead of me. Thus, if I don’t have something valuable to add, I wait until I do. It’s not that we can’t be a community; it’s just that if we are going to make an inane observation, we should at least attempt to ensure it isn’t hurtful.

    /end rant

    And now . . . ummmm . . . Oh yeah! Hockey! I forget sometimes . . .

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    All I’m saying is that before we get too eager to write guys off, or picking out new franchise cornerstones, each of these players has the ability to change our minds – and it might not take all that long.

    Please, Dubnyk, change my mind. Seriously . . . Please.

  • You guys know this is a website, right? I know it’s a really cool little pretend land, but life starts when you power down, not power up.

    I’ve often thought that websites with comment forums should have a section called “The tailings pond”, where anybody who wanted to eat cheeseburgers and be the king of his keyboard could strike up the most ridiculous of posts, attracting all the other trolls to the trough. Feeding time!

    • Petr's Jofa

      Woo-hoo! Free cheeseburgers! (that’s what your getting at right?)

      So, who’s this year’s bounce back player?

      I’m chosing Horcoff. The man has no where to go but up. Right?

      When do we pick our stars and goats? More importantly, can I get ride of Jacques and Bulin as my star and goat from last year?

      • Mike Krushelnyski

        Ouch…I think you might lose your star-picking privilages for this year if you called JFJ as your star for last year 😉

        I think Horcoff will have a bounce back year as well. What he needs more than anything is a clearly defined role out of camp. It seems like last year he was thrown out in every possible situation and was expected to fulfill a different role (or two) every night.

        I think Horc could have some success as a shutdown guy or on a secondary scoring line, but Renney needs to decide where he wants him early and stick to that.

  • SkinnyD

    I’ve always liked Penner and Gagner together – they play the cycle game well in the offensive zone, and I could see Eberle sliding in on their RW…Gagner feeding both of them nice saucer passes…that’s a pretty potent 2nd line (well, potentially anyways).

    Can they not have Penner and Gagner splitting the faceoffs, but leave DP on the wing?

  • What could we expect to get with Cogs , Brule and Souray in a package deal for youth , draft picks/or futures , and lots of cap space coming our way ? Deals maybe involving Nashville , Boston and perhaps Columbus ?

    • Crackenbury

      I believe Brule was given a qualifying offer, which in his case would have been a 5% increase on his prior years salary (I think). It’s very likely the Oilers and Brule will work something out prior to the arbitration hearing.

    • Crackenbury

      Brule wasn’t really made an official offer yet other than the Oilers qualified him at the amount that is set out in the CBA…

      I’m not sure what the average NHL salary is but if a player is under it I believe he has to be qualified at either a 10% or 5% raise depending on how much under the league average he is. If the player is at or above league average I think he only needs to be qualified at the same salary as last year.

      My guess is given Brule was at $800,000 last year that he was below the average and was qualified probably around $850,000.

      But this doesn’t mean that’s what the Oilers are offering unless of course Brule wanted to sign the qualifying offer which not very many guys do.

  • Chris.

    This is a great offering by Willis. Perception drives much of the debate between hockey fans on this site, in living rooms, and bars everywhere… Dustin Penner was percieved by many fans to be lazy. I think to a large degree this is because he is a big man who takes longer strides and consequently appears to be dogging it on the ice. He who shall not be named *cough Pronger cough* skates much the same way but we are loathe to call him lazy… Similarly Horcoff is percieved by many to be a now useless offensive player because he fights the puck a fair bit and fails to connect on many passing plays. The thing is, Horcoff fubs the puck a lot because he works hard to stay involved in many plays often pushing himself to the edge of his abilities… how is this worse than a player like Nilsson who rarely engages and therefore seems to make less mistakes in offensive situations? Hemsky turns the puck over a lot. It makes me crazy but I have to remind myself that a go-to-guy who handles the puck as much as Hemsky, is bound to have more turnovers… His hockey I.Q. isn’t low, he just has a lot of touches and it is easy to dwell on mistakes.

    Sometimes it’s good to put down the beers and look at some numbers. Penner, Horcoff, and Hemsky are all pretty solid players… even though the percieved quality of their play can be very contraversial among Oiler fans. Fun thread!

    • Bucknuck

      I agree 100% – last year was his worst season since the lock out and I can’t see a repeat. I see 65 points or better in his future and a lessening of the hate-on a lot of posters seems to have for him.

    • Chris.

      Again perception… and the common human tendency to dwell on mistakes. Last season, after Quinn gave up on the Gagner-Penner-Hemsky experiment; Horcoff was elevated despite a poor start. Instant magic! It’s true that Horcoff killed many, many plays. It’s true he misfired on pass after pass, and drew the ire of many fans… but the stats sheet said (just before Hemmer lost his season) that this line outchanced/outscored the opposition toughies… Horcoff, in his own dysfuntional way, despite being all thumbs was on a six game point scoring streak. Personally, I’ll take a line that outchances and outscores the opposition: even if they look ugly doing it. Horcoff’s ability to retrieve the puck from the center ice position in all three zones (With linmates not named O’Sullivan) is still the best on this team… Yet he is still an often maligned figure.

      When Horcoff misses an easy pass I want to strangle him too… but I have to remind myself that so often: (Rewind your PVR if you’re at home) just before that happened, it was Horcoff’s hard work in the previous zone that led to the break in the first place… and it will most likely be Horcoff who works hardest to regain control of the puck, or cover back till next shift. Sometimes, the net total chances for, outweigh opportunities that were lost. The Gagner-Hemsky-Penner trio was invisible. It’s true that Gagner never looked “Shawn Handcuffed”, but then again, maybe he didn’t fub as many nice Hemsky feeds simply because that line never had the puck in the first place.

      Personally, I can’t wait till Sam hits the next level… and has the confidence to try more plays at high speed; but be prepared to see a lot more plays die with him as a result. It’s been my perception (perhaps flawed) that Sam often switches to glide as he passes the blue line: (particularly when he has the puck) it’s easier to make plays that way, and you’re less likely to appear Shawn Handcuffed when the puck comes back.

      • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

        Well said. The fact that 2, and I’m assuming soon to be 3 head coaches all used Horc more then any other forward (per game) should lead us to believe that you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  • Ender

    Chris wrote:

    It’s true that Gagner never looked “Shawn Handcuffed”, but then again, maybe he didn’t fub as many nice Hemsky feeds simply because that line never had the puck in the first place.

    Interesting observation. I’ll think about this one for a bit.

    @ Bucknuck

    You don’t figure Horcoff can repeat last season, and for the record I don’t either; his shoulder has got to be quite a bit better come September and that will make a ton of difference.

    Thing is, I’m not quite ready to give Penner a free pass and expecting him to be lighting up goalies at a point-a-game. He may have proven he can play some hockey when he wants to, but I haven’t yet decided which year was the aberration; 09-10, or the two seasons previous to that. Unfortunately, Horcoff may not be the only player that doesn’t repeat last season.

  • SLURVE

    If you are going to start banning people, then we are just like the Calgary Puck Forum mediators. They call it trolling when you give constructive critiques on the Calgary Flames management.

    ‘ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’