CALGARY — For much of last season, Dustin Penner found a way to quiet some of his harshest critics.
Since signing a five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet in the summer of 2007 after helping the Anaheim Ducks capture the Stanley Cup, the Winkler product has been under intense scrutiny by media and coaches alike.
But a blazing start in 2009-10, one which had him mentioned in the discussion as a long-shot for inclusion on Canada’s Olympic roster, Penner wrapped up the season as the Edmonton Oilers leading scorer after posting a career-high 32 goals and 63 points in 82 games.
Now in his sixth NHL season, Penner is hoping recent history repeats itself, at least in terms of his offensive production.
“I want to improve on that,” Penner said shortly after the Oilers wrapped up the NHL pre-season with a 1-0 loss to the Calgary Flames. “Each year poses different challenges and I’m prepared to meet them. With the amount of talent we have this year, it’s probably going to be goal-scoring by committee and I want to still be able to play the same way and contribute.
“Having a good start is always important. It gets you off on the right track and it’s huge for any team if they can come together early.”
Penner’s style of play clashed with Craig MacTavish, who took him to task publicly on several occasions, but the power forward seemed to flourish under Pat Quinn.
With Quinn gone and replaced by Tom Renney, an associate coach last season, Penner still understands what he needs to do to be successful out of the gate.
“It was just a matter of clicking with my linemates, playing smart and keeping it simple. Driving the net and getting pucks to the net,” said Penner, who has 105 goals and 199 points in 343 NHL games. “I didn’t do much different.”
Despite the individual success, last season was generally one big headache for the Oilers, who endured key injuries to goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, slick forward Ales Hemsky and defenceman Sheldon Souray (since loaned to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League) and limped their way to last place in the 30-team league.
By virtue of winning the draft lottery, the Oilers did benefit by earning the right to select Windsor Spitfires star Taylor Hall with the first overall pick.
In addition to Hall, the Oilers are opening the campaign with fellow rookie Magnus Paarvi and world junior hero Jordan Eberle.
With young talent like Sam Gagner, Gilbert Brule and Andrew Cogliano also in the system, there’s a genuine sense of optimism surrounding the Oilers — though finding a way back into the Stanley Cup playoffs will still be tough to achieve.
“By default, I’m one of the oldest guys now,” said Penner, who is 28. “It’s always exciting as a player and especially after a long summer, you’re itching to get back. This year is a lot different than any other year in the league with the amount of the talent and youth with this group. It’s been a new experience for me, seeing all these young guys and new faces, so to speak.
“There’s definitely a different feel around the team, from management, coaches, players and the fans in the city.”