|Edmonton Oilers forward Dustin Penner speaks with the media Friday during the Oilers' fitness testing. Penner will take on more of a leadership role this season as the team got considerably younger over the summer. (PERRY MAH/QMI Agency)
It’s very likely that as one of the team leaders this season Dustin Penner will be wearing a letter.
But instead of an A or a C, they might be better off stitching a PhD on his sweater.
When Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle or any of Edmonton’s other child stars run into career turbulence, which they almost certainly will at some point, who better to guide them through it than somebody with an honorary degree in whipping post survival.
Penner, that’s who.
“It makes me feel older,” said the 27-year-old winger, looking around the dressing room on the first day of training camp. “I was part of the young guys for a while there. And now, even though I guess I’m not that old, in comparison to a lot of guys here you find yourself from the top looking down. It’s an interesting position to be in.”
It’s one that has him well-prepared to help the next generation of Oilers navigate whatever rough patches they might encounter.
On the wrong side of high expectations and low production in his first two seasons in Edmonton, Penner took fire from all angles — coach, media, fans and just about anyone else with a keyboard and electricity.
It was such a tough stretch that Damien Cox tweeted that Penner was dead.
He wasn’t, though. He kept his sanity and responded last season by leading the team with a career-high 32 goals. Unfortunately, it was the worst, longest and most miserable season in franchise history — basically a postgraduate study in frustration and self-doubt.
“I’ve had my fair share,” said Penner, who hopes he can provide a healthy perspective for the youngsters if things should happen to go sideways. “You want to exude a sense of confidence, and also be able to read the room and make guys at ease when it’s been a tough day or the coach has been on him.
“Sometimes they’ll feel like everybody hates me, but you have to let them know that it’s never as bad as it seems.
“I think every team in the NHL has growing pains. You have teams that ended up first in the league last year that went up and down at times during the season. With younger teams it just depends on how long you stay down. Better teams get back up quicker.”
Right now, though, the mood from top to bottom couldn’t be any better. It is every fall, but this year, for all the obvious reasons, it’s like everybody in the room is born again. This might, at long last, be the season where Penner can enjoy personal and team success at the same time.
“I think we’ll be a very competitive team,” he said, adding the influx of young talent and the return to health of some injured veterans might just catch a lot of people by surprise. “You never know when the stars could align. It’ll be exciting to see how the dust settles in a week, week and a half, but there’s been a lot of change through the management and staff and the team, kind of a fresh start.
“We’re changing the culture here. With that comes a new mind-set and a new feeling. You can just tell it’s a good feeling.”
And if it ever goes bad, they know who to call.