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.

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:

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.