As the trade deadline approaches, the Jets are flirting with a Division Title. Though the focus is still building from within, the team sits in a position to buy for a playoff birth and even a banner raising come October. Sure it’s the Southeast Division Champion banner, but thanks to realignment, our kids won’t know that isn’t impressive.
In the next couple weeks, we’ll trot out some ideas for trade targets for the Jets in the hopes of being able to say ‘I told you so’ later on. In this installment, the much maligned and always controversial Dustin Penner.
Dustin Penner isn’t everyone’s favourite player. In fact, unless you were a Portland Pirates fan in the mid-‘oughts or watching the hapless Oilers during Dustin Penner’s 2009/10 dominant season, you probably think of his career as a belly flop in slow motion. As someone who has watched every one of Dustin Penner’s games with the Oilers and very few of his games in LA, I will wear my bias on my sleeve.
But consider the graph below as Exhibit A on why Dustin Penner would be of value to the Jets.
(Right click > view image to see it enlarged)
This is a player usage chart invented by Robert Vollman and explained very well by him here (PDF). The horizontal axis is % of faceoffs taken in the offensive zone (further right means more faceoffs in the offensive end). The vertical axis is the quality of competition (higher up = harder competition). And the bubble is relative corsi – orange is positive, blue is negative, and the bigger the bubble, the bigger the number.
These are all of Dustin Penner’s NHL seasons and NHL playoffs as separate bubbles. I think you can see the outlier – the giant blue one in the corner. That’s actually his playoff bubble from the LA Stanley Cup run. It’s a very small sample, but he didn’t do well at possession despite facing his easiest opposition. Interestingly, the narrative has reflected the exact opposite (which made me check the numbers roughly 100 times). Those playoffs were written in the media as his redemption from a season of pancake misfortune, divorce, and poor play. His corsi bubble for his so-called poor showing in the regular season? It’s the tiny (but orange) one on the far right, just under the midpoint line on Quality of Competition. He didn’t score much, but he didn’t get buried either. Eight of the twelve skaters who saw more than 100 minutes of 5×5 ice time with Penner had better corsi % with him than without in 2011/12. In fact, Penner has consistently been a positive corsi player and pushes the puck the right direction against middle opposition reliably.
His scoring is a clear issue and is at the heart of why he’s even available. Since joining the Kings, Penner has averaged a rate of 25 points per 82 games. But in 5 NHL seasons previous, he averaged 48 points per 82 game season. Perhaps he’s lost a step or somehow ruined his hands and/or brain, but perhaps he just doesn’t fit with LA. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have both had their scoring rates decline since joining LA. Teddy Purcell left and went on to score more. Simon Gagne struggled after coming to LA just like Penner (only with more injuries – the Gagne signature). It’s possible that the defense-first system Penner works under just doesn’t suit him. They won a cup, so I won’t tell them to change it. But maybe they’ll sell a talented, strong, smart hockey player for less than full value on the basis of miscasting him.
Why is he available?
I think it’s fair to call a mystery at this point. I’ve long since decided that he’s a victim of his size. Penner is huge. He uses his body more like Antropov than like Ladd – using it to protect the puck and find space, mostly. Some coaches see that he can use his body in a more punishing way and expect him to do that. His stride is laughably long, and while the rest of the team is pumping their legs to show how hard they’re working, Penner always looks disinterested. He’s not fast, exactly, but makes up for it with strong positioning to avoid exposing himself. That is, until a coach makes him go another 5 feet to finish his check, and then he’s behind the play with a stride so large he looks like he couldn’t care less to provide back pressure. Annnnnd back to the press box.
I honestly think it’s a coaching problem with Penner. Not that the coaches he’s had are bad coaches. Still, that Penner is not a typical hockey player and is smart, funny, sensitive guy is plain to see in every interview he does. The coaches he’s had have not exactly been ‘new age’ talk-to-your-players-like-people kind of coaches for the most part – Carlyle, McTavish, Murray, Sutter. It was under Kevin Dineen that he scored 84 points in 59 AHL games. And it was with Tom Renny around that he had his best two seasons in Edmonton by pts/game. Claude Noel is known for letting his locker rooms be a little looser, plus his style of play is more free flowing than either coach Penner has had in LA. I think it might be a better fit.
What can he do for the Jets?
I talked in the piece on Kulemin about the hole the Jets have on LW behind Kane and Ladd. Penner would mean a three scoring line approach with Antropov and Wellwood. That line wouldn’t be fast, but all three have shown strong underlying stats throughout their careers. They likely win the possession and territory numbers more games than not. Penner isn’t much of a PK player, but has been used for many years successfully as a net presence and puck retrieval player in the PP. Off the ice, he’s also really funny, from his media interviews to his pancake breakfast benefit to his appearance on Conan during the lockout. Lots of media groups don’t really get his sense of humour, but I would welcome seeing more camera time with him and I bet he’s a lot of fun in the locker room.
The upgrade on the ice would be considerable, and I doubt we see James Wright or Eric Tangradi do this:
What’s the cost?
Penner was traded from the Oilers as a 1st line LW and an effective two-way forward. The return was a stuggling defencive prospect in Colton Teubert, a 1st (Klefbom) and a 3rd (Zharkov). He’s leaving as a player who will likely struggle to get a contract north of $3million next year (barring another narrative about his playoff performance) and is talked about as frustrating to coach. He’s a UFA at the end of a 1 year contract worth $3.25mil. The Kings were on the fence about him until his playoff scoring, and let go of Simon Gagne for a conditional 4th earlier in the year. I doubt he’s a Triple Sell from the Kings perspective as they can still remember last off-season, but might be had for as little as a second in 2014 or third this year and a depth roster player like Grant Clitsome (the Kings likely want defencemen). That said, he’s recently started getting offensive minutes, and the Kings aren’t deep in natural scoring ability. They may have renewed faith in Penner or be ‘pumping’ him to increase the price come April 3rd. In the latter case, the cost may go too high for a team still clearly a few more pieces away from a deep push into the playoffs. Still, the Jets would do well to investigate at the very least.