SUN Hockey Pool

Growin' into da cash

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:31 AM ET

From a Stanley Cup in June to an offer sheet in July, to a firestorm of controversy and the centre of a very public feud between his old general manager and his new one, Dustin Penner had a lot on his plate this season.

A lot on his plate? Oh, yeah, we forgot to mention all the cracks about his weight.

But despite a short summer to get ready for Edmonton and claustrophobic expectations when he got here, the thick-skinned 25-year-old says he emerged from the whole experience a better player and a stronger person.

A PLEASURE PLAYING HERE

"It was a pleasure playing with these guys this year, getting to know the team and the organization," said the Manitoba native, who's been through more in his two full NHLseasons than some players have in an entire career.

"I had a lot of fun this year. It was a learning experience for me. I grew a lot as a player and as a person."

There were some hard lessons in there. In Anaheim he was a small piece of a big puzzle, earning minimum wage in a market that doesn't care about hockey.

Overnight, he became the controversial, $4.25 million centerpiece in a city that breathes the game. Throw in a slow start and the burner under his backside got a little warm.

"It's something I hadn't experienced before, obviously," said Penner, who was dogged by questions of money, fitness and production at every turn. "But as the season wore on it got easier to deal with. It was one of those things that makes you stronger as a person."

Eighty-two games later, he's settling in to the team and the town and the deal. The first round draft choice Anaheim gets for him this year won't be a lottery pick, his 46 points are a career high (even though the last 29 games were without top centre Shawn Horcoff) and by the end of his five-year contract, $4.25 million isn't going to seem at all out of line. If this year was a sophomore jinx for a guy who's only played 183 NHL games, he came through it well.

"It took him a while to realize the increased responsibility and the burden of that responsibility on him," said head coach Craig MacTavish, who rode Penner hard in the early going. "He was coming from Anaheim where if he wasn't going (well), they sat him on the bench and went with other options. We needed him every night; that was a big burden for him early on in the year.

"To combine that with the expectations that everybody had based on the contract and the dialogue that went along with that was a big burden for him. I thought he handled it very well; I was happy with the way he fit in with the team."

Penner will spend much of the off-season training at Edmonton's summer conditioning camp in California. In better shape, more comfortable with his surroundings and with healthy linemates, they're expecting him to score 30-plus goals next year.

POTENTIAL UNREALIZED

"There's still a considerable distance he has to go as a player," said MacTavish. "As a coach you want guys to play to their potential and potentially he's a whole lot better player than what he was this year ... and he was pretty good this year."

Penner knows he can grow into something pretty good.

"I'm really excited, probably the most excited I've been coming into a pro season," he said. "I'll be familiar with my surroundings, not have the same questions beat into me over and over again.

"We have a lot to look foreward to. It's going to be a fun and exciting year for us."


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