Penner shootin' for awards

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

ANAHEIM -- The honour caught Dustin Penner by surprise.

On the phone with his mom last week, the Anaheim Ducks centre was given the news he is a finalist for Manitoba's athlete of the year.

"I'm in with some good company. I don't know if there's one for men and one for women or if it's co-ed because there's pretty stiff competition with (speedskater) Cindy Klassen and her (five Olympic) medals she has hanging off her neck," he said after yesterday's morning skate.

"She's got it wrapped up. She has to be the odds-on favourite in Vegas."

Actually, there are two awards, so Penner has a shot, going up against the likes of Chicago Bears defensive lineman Israel Idonije and AHL scoring champ Kirby Law.

It may not be the only award for which Penner will be among the finalists.

At the rate he's going, the 24-year-old product of Winkler, Man., is making a case to be a finalist for the NHL's rookie of the year.

Penner's 14 goals had him behind only Pittsburgh's highly touted Evgeni Malkin (16) and fourth among freshmen with 21 points.

His third-period goal supplied some late-game insurance in last night's 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames.

Amazingly, Penner wasn't drafted. A walk-on at Minot State after playing junior A -- how a player who's 6-ft. 4-in., 240 lb. and with scoring touch wasn't chased by every WHL team is a mystery -- he was a free-agent signing after one year at the University of Maine.

Last season he compiled 39 goals and 84 points in only 57 AHL games and racked up another four goals and seven points in 19 NHL clashes.

Which has so many within the Ducks wondering just how valuable a diamond they've found in the rough.

"I don't think he or even the organization knows what his potential is or where it can go," said linemate Todd Marchant. "He has to work hard every day and the coaching staff is on him every day because they know that he has the potential and the ability to take his game to the next level."

After all, Penner didn't spend his younger days learning the game among the best players in the country. There were no camps among top players, no invites to training camps.

The learning curve, points out Marchant, is still climbing at an alarming rate.

"His game is evolving every day. He's learning, not only what he can do but what he's capable of doing in this (elite) league," Marchant said. "At first, it's not easy to figure out where you're going to be successful. As of late, he knows he's got to go to the front of the net. Because he has great vision and great hands, he's able to find those pucks and put them in."

All the while playing in a supporting role as the Ducks have enough top-end talent to be a Stanley Cup favourite.

Penner's playing on a line with Marchant -- more of a checker than sniper and Shawn Thornton, a 29-year-old minor league journeyman with 44 NHL games under his belt.


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