It's been rather amazing to watch the Dustin Penner bandwagon these past few years. When Kevin Lowe first offered Penner a contract as a restricted free agent, it was after a spring and summer of disappointment. The Oilers had missed out on most of the big names in free agency, signing Sheldon Souray but failing to land the impact forward they coveted. Ryan Smyth had been traded the previous summer, and Michael Nylander had backed out of an agreement with the Oilers to sign with Washington for less money. Kevin Lowe was in desperation mode, first offering a contract to Tomas Vanek (which was matched) and then to Plan B, Dustin Penner.
Most Oilers fans loved the Penner offer sheet. He was compared in the local papers to John Leclair, and many felt that the power forward they coveted had finally arrived when Brian Burke declined to match the generous five-year offer. A poll on HFBoards offers a snap shot of the fan base's opinion the day the offer sheet was announced. The question was simple: do you want Brian Burke to match Lowe's offer. Here were the results:
- Yes: 32.18%
- No: 51.49%
- Indifferent: 16.34%
More than half of the fans in that poll thought the offer sheet was a good idea, despite the disastrous season preceeding it, the length of the contract, Penner's own spotty track record, and the three draft picks that were surrendered in the process.
My own distaste for the offer sheet stemmed more from where the Oilers were at the time than Penner's value as a player. 2006-07 had been a disaster, Ryan Smyth was gone, and the blueline was still largely in shambles. I wanted to see a complete rebuild of the team, rather than patchwork via free agency. I did, however, believe that Penner would be fair value on the contract dollars, something which hasn't happened to date.
It's an illuminating case though of how a fanbase can turn; only two years ago, more than half approved of the offer sheet and hoped to see Penner as an Oiler. Now, few would call it anything but a mistake. It's something to keep in mind about the conventional wisdom of Oilers fans as a whole: moves that please the majority of the fanbase may turn out disastrously in the long-term. And that, ultimately, is why the Oilers' shouldn't bother with moves to appease their fans; because in the end, if they win the fans will love them and if they lose they won't.
Witness the complaints this season and this summer: fans complain about an indifferent team, the "sorriest group of players" they've ever seen, a lack of grit, a lack of drive, and all the like. But none of us is as dumb as all of us; the rhetoric is overblown, and that finish really wasn't as bad as it appeared - 21st in the NHL with a young team and some very addressable holes. I think, and I certainly hope, that Steve Tambellini examines this organization with an objective view, and resists making big, long-term changes that ultimately will cause more chaos.