Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Penner pushing to be Oly pick

Dominant year with Oilers should earn him shot with Team Canada

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It's rather incredible that the ever-morphing prospects list of Team Canada's men's Olympic hockey team now includes Dustin Penner.It must. Because it's officially one-quarter through the 2009-2010 season, and the big lug from Winkler is as dominant as any other Canadian in the NHL. Period.

This development is somewhat fascinating because just two months ago, Penner wasn't even guaranteed a spot on his own team, the Edmonton Oilers. Remember? The Oilers couldn't wait to trade Penner and Andrew Cogliano to Ottawa for the sulking Dany Heatley.

Face it, the Oilers had given up on Penner, whom they lured from Anaheim two years back with a five-year, $21.25-million contract. Penner didn't exactly flourish under former head coach Craig MacTavish, who considered the 6-foot-4, 245-pound power forward an underachiever.

So you can imagine, given the old-boys' network of the NHL, that to raise Penner's name relating to the 2010 Olympic team just a couple of months ago would have been understandably dismissed. He had zero international experience, was coming off a career-low 17-goal season and even his own team thought Penner to be expendable.

Besides, consider the competition. As little as three weeks ago, Penner himself dismissed the possibility, chuckling that perhaps if he were of Belarusian descent, he'd have a shot. Well, no one should be chuckling anymore.

In fact, based on sheer numbers alone, you could make an argument that if Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman had to announce Canada's roster today, the Winkler native should be on the list. Absolutely.

After 21 games, Penner is 10th overall in NHL scoring with 12 goals and 11 assists, ranked behind fellow Canadians Rick Nash (24), Patrick Marleau (24), Joe Thornton (24), Corey Perry (24) and Heatley (23). Only Perry (13), Heatley (14) and Nash (13) have more goals.

Look, we understand that Penner is a long shot for Team Canada. In the months leading up to the 2010 Games, there have been a billion mock rosters submitted by almost every single media outlet/columnist/analyst/dog catcher in the nation. And, trust us, not one of them included Penner's name. (Except, perhaps, for the list of a Mrs. Linda Penner. But, hey, what's a mother to do?)

But fast-forward to today, and while most lists have altered slightly, the usual suspects are all there in terms of forward talent; Jarome Iginla, Sidney Crosby, Nash, Ryan Getzlaf, etc.

In fact, the aforementioned Nash -- the rangy, gifted Columbus Blue Jackets forward -- is widely considered a lock for Team Canada. Fair enough. This year, Nash's and Penner's offensive stats are almost identical. Except for one: Nash is a minus-7 and Penner is a plus-10. That's a monster difference that a coach would spot in a nanosecond.

Don't forget, when Yzerman and Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock were first asked what kind of players he wanted on Team Canada, their priority was players who "were willing to play all 200 feet."

Only one other Canadian-born forward in the NHL has a better plus-minus rating this season than Penner, and that's Colorado rookie Ryan O'Reilly (plus-12).

Seriously, what does a guy have to do? Yet this is understandable, because Penner is, well, different. You see, young phenoms like Steve Stamkos (21 points) and even John Tavares (19 points) are bubble players who will get a strong second look because of their pedigree. They're both No. 1 picks who've been pegged as superstars since their early teens. Both have a wealth of international experience and national prominence.

When Penner was 19, he was often a healthy scratch for the Bottineau Lumberjacks junior college team. Undrafted, signed as a free agent out of Maine. Sure, Penner won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with Anaheim, after a solid 29-goal rookie season. But let's be honest, prior to the start of this season, Penner was about as close to a Team Canada invite as Paris Hilton was to an Oscar nomination.

At age 27, with very little past, he's the ugly duckling in this group.

Perhaps that's why the next six weeks might go a long way in defining Dustin Penner's career. Maybe he's not good enough for Team Canada. Maybe this is an aberration, this scoring burst, and come late December Penner will be surpassed on the scoring list by all those names on all those mock lists.

We'll see. But there's only about 20 games left before Yzerman & Co. have to make their decisions, and if Penner continues to put up such head-turning numbers, he'll deserve a long, hard look for Vancouver.

One thing is certain about Penner, though. A lot of people over the years never thought he was good enough; not for major junior, not for university, not for the NHL and -- up until about September -- not nearly good enough for Team Canada.

This might be fun to watch.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2009 C3

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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