Dustin Penner was capable of carrying the Oilers on his own. Photo by Lisa McRitchie, all rights reserved.
Dustin Penner's final game with the Edmonton Oilers was a perfect microcosm of his career as an Oiler. By the traditional numbers, Penner tallied an asist and a +1 rating. By the microstats, he was even on the scoring chances sheet and a plus in both Corsi and Fenwick on a night when most of his teammates were deep into the red. He spent the game matched against Boston's top line and still came out ahead.
When I wrote my article about my favorite post-dynasty Oiler, I didn't consider it possible that Penner wouldn't finish the season in Edmonton, and it stings more than a little to see him go. I didn't grow attached to Ryan Smyth like other fans did, likely because I was still bitter about how Jari Kurri's career ended in Edmonton. After Kurri and Esa were dispatched for the first rebuild, I didn't really take a rooting interest in players. That changed when Dustin Penner was being thrown under the bus by nearly everyone in Edmonton and I started to defend him. Penner was the subject of what remains my favorite microstats article, An Amicus Brief In Support of Dustin Penner. I spent so much time defending the guy that I started to root for Penner the player, not Penner the Oiler. After being informed of Penner's thanks for the article, it was sealed. The big fella would be my favorite player.
I'm not sure how Penner will be remembered in Edmonton. His career as an Oiler was brief, and had such a tumultuous beginning that it's likely his remarkable accomplishments will be overlooked in time. He wasn't just the microstats poster boy (though he did drive results every year he was here); he posted some excellent traditional numbers as well. Last season, Penner became only the second man in Oilers' history to lead the team in Goals, Assists, Points, and +/- in a single season (we all know who the other guy was). Beyond that, he cemented himself as a top-twenty wing in the NHL. In fact, only twenty wingers have scored more goals than Penner in the last four seasons and only eleven wingers have scored more goals than Penner in the last two seasons.
The Edmonton media had a field day piling blame on Penner. But it wasn't just the Edmonton media that took it to Penner; the entirety of the North American media did the same. Visiting broadcast crews referred to Penner as an underachiever, a label that would never see the light of day for any of the other top twenty wingers in the league. To the casual observer and the "HIT SOMEBODY" fan, Penner never looked like he was doing much. But whether he looked the part or not, the one thing Penner did consistently was drive the play.
In the end, I think I liked Dustin Penner because he embodied so much of what's right about hockey. He showed up to play every night, missing only one game of his own volition during his time in Edmonton; a bout with the flu knocked him out for a game, but he was back in the lineup the next time the team took to the ice even though he may have been exhausted and drained - he was there for his team.
He was never a lifeless automaton either. He had a sense of humor and was always quick to display it during intermission interviews. He spent three years mocking Gene Principe between periods and toyed with the local media by talking about things like Sour Patch Kids and Beer. Even as he was leaving, he joked with the media about how comfortable he felt to be going to a team with a former landlord. Dustin Penner brought life to a part of hockey that's largely unnecessary because of the need players feel to give stock quotes and fit the stereotypes. But Dustin Penner didn't do that, he showed that he was real.
Penner was also never afraid to defend a teammate, famously dropping Robin Regher after watching Ales Hemsky take a year's worth of shots from behind from the Flames dirty defenseman. He came to Ladislav Smid's aid by one-punching Landon Wilson. He came to Sam Gagner's defense after Jack Johnson boarded him, and he stepped in to fight Garnet Exelby after Exleby threw a horrendous cheap shot on Ales Hemsky. He was the first teammate in after Drew Doughty leveled Taylor Hall. If this team has had an enforcer in the last few seasons, that man has been Dustin Penner.
But he didn't just defend his teammates on the ice - he made all of them better. The Amicus Brief shows how much better both Horcoff and Hemsky were when Penner was out there, and nearly every WOWY analysis showed similar results for every player. His size, durability, skill, and talent combined with his style of play allowed him to fit into any situation. He dominated play down low and was capable of maintaining possession for an entire shift. He could storm off the boards to the front of the net and he could make a touch pass to the point. His hands were outstanding for a player of any size. He stood in front of the net on the power play and allowed Sheldon Souray and Kurtis Foster to fire head-high slapshots at him during an era when no other Oiler would venture near the slot, let alone the crease. He carried poor linemates and turned them into even hockey players through nothing else than sheer determination and overwhelming play. Throughout Craig MacTavish's very public attacks on Penner, Dustin never said a word to the press. He never showed up the coach or the team. He just kept playing, no matter what his role.
Penner also wanted to come to Edmonton. Oiler fans like to complain that free agents won't come to Edmonton and that drafted players won't stay. The narrative says that players don't like the cold, the small-town feel, the people, the distance from civilization. Dustin Penner grew up in Winkler, Manitoba, so he knew exactly what he was getting into, and still chose to come to Edmonton. Sure, the offer sheet he signed was worth significantly more than his market value, but the Oilers have offered other free agents enormous sums above market value before and been rebuffed. Dustin Penner came.
Penner was a courteous and open denzien of Edmonton as well. I've gotten e-mails from Edmontonians about chance meetings and each person notes that Penner was willing to speak with them, was very polite, and gave them a chance to chew his ear off, even during the season in which he was scapegoated by both the organization and the city. Most of all, he took care of Joey Moss. That's a picture, taken by Gene Principe, of Joey Moss' new running shoes, a gift from Dustin Penner. Ryan Jones tweeted shortly after the trade was announced:
A man who takes care of and cares for the soul of the Edmonton Oilers is a good man.
The conclusion I reached in the Amicus Brief holds true today:
The statistics used in the first three parts of this brief lead to one indisputable fact: the Edmonton Oilers are a stunningly better team when Dustin Penner steps onto the ice...
As we've learned since then, the Oilers are a stunningly better team when Penner is there off of the ice as well.