It's Dustin time

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

There was no place on Earth Dustin Penner would have rather been yesterday than on a go-cart in southern California, bumping wheels with the likes of Teemu Selanne and Chris Pronger.

You see, being able to take part in head coach Randy Carlyle's latest team-building session meant Penner had earned a spot on the roster of the NHL's Anaheim Ducks.

"It's a privileged lifestyle to be able to play hockey in southern California," the 24-year-old Winkler product said from Anaheim yesterday. "It's something that maybe in 10 years I'll look back and say, 'Wow. I was pretty lucky.' So I'm not going to take anything for granted."

It's actually the second straight season Penner has made the cut. But this time, he plans on making it stick.

Nobody else expects him to be sent back to the minors, either.

Matter of fact, the expectations being heaped on Penner's broad shoulders kind of mirror those piled on the Ducks this year.

A Western Conference finalist last season, the Ducks are the fashionable choice to win the West and reach the Stanley Cup final.

And Penner, a big forward (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) who played no small role in the team's playoff push last spring (nine points in 13 games) is being touted as one of the rookies to watch, along with Phil Kessel in Boston, Gilbert Brule of Columbus, Detroit's Jiri Hudler and, of course, Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.

He's also part of a promising group of Manitoba-born rookies.

In Toronto, defencemen Ian White of Steinbach is expected to log plenty of ice time for the Maple Leafs. And Winnipegger Cam Barker, the third overall choice in the entry draft two years ago, will be thrust into his first season in Chicago as soon as he recovers from a broken ankle.

Penner, though, hasn't taken the typical road to the NHL.

He couldn't make the Manitoba Junior League, went undrafted and wound up at a small college in North Dakota. Finally, he broke out at the University of Maine, three years ago.

And now he's being mentioned in the same breath as the words Calder Trophy. How crazy is that?

"It's nice to be mentioned as a candidate," Penner said. "But a lot can change toward the end of the year. I'm just focusing on playing my best every night, and let the chips fall where they may.

"I want to be on this team and help them get as far as they can. And hopefully to the ultimate goal."

Ultimate team goal, that is.

Because if Penner is becoming anything, he's becoming a product of the man who coaches him.

It was, after all, Carlyle who first sent Penner down to build his confidence in the AHL, then called him up as an injury replacement for the playoffs.

It was Carlyle who called Penner aside after four uneventful playoff games and coerced a scoring streak out of him.

And it was Carlyle who gave him enough ice time to show what he could do.

Little wonder, then, the student sounds a lot like the teacher.

"When the team does well, the individuals on the team also do well, and reap the benefits," Penner said. "Any individual awards on this team will be because of the team."

That said, Penner has an idea what he wants to accomplish -- he just won't attach numbers to it.

"I want to get to the level where I was in the AHL last year, that comfort feeling where you can play and be dominant, night in, night out. And a lot of that has to do with who you're playing with."

These days, Penner has been paired with veteran Todd Marchant and rookie Ryan Shannon.

Looking behind him, though, really gets Penner excited.

"When you look at the back end and see two Norris Trophy winners, that's a confidence booster," he said, referring to Anaheim's two stars on defence, Pronger and Scott Niedermayer.

No wonder folks in Anaheim are as fired up as anybody about the new season.

"I can't wait to get started," Penner said.


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