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Dustin Penner Shows Offseason Commitment to Kings

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Dustin Penner making the pass to Michal Handzus in the first period getting the assist on Handzus' goal against the San Jose Sharks on April 19, 2011. (LAist/Norman Yeh)
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After the Kings’ season disappointingly ended in another first-round exit from the playoffs - this time at the hands of divisional rivals San Jose Sharks -right or wrong a lot of fingers were pointed at Dustin Penner and his fitness.

Penner was the biggest move on the trade deadline in the NHL on February 28 when the Kings landed him in exchange for defenseman prospect Colton Teubert, a first-round draft pick in the 2011 draft and a conditional third-round pick in 2012. There were high hopes that Penner would supplement what the Kings were doing on offense, to be that big body in front of the net that opened up scoring lanes.

“This guy has skill,” Head Coach Terry Murray said after the season. “He has talent. He has ability. A man with a big body like that who’s able to hold off defenders while doing something good with the puck.”

Instead Penner skated around making a negligible contribution at best that was further accentuated after the season-ending injury to Anze Kopitar on March 26 in a game against the Colorado Avalanche. In his 19 regular season games with the Kings he scored two goals and notched four assists and had a 0 plus/minus rating. In the six playoff games he had a goal and assist with a -3 rating.

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“That’s why the conversation with him over the summer to get going right away is critical for us and for him to be the player that we project him to be,” Murray said.

General Manager Dean Lombardi also stressed that message.

“We’ve set the culture here where you have to be in shape,” Lombardi said. “There is some serious work to do during the summer, and to me that’s all culture. There’s some upside if he buys in because he is a strong man. It’s not only going to make him a better hockey player, but it’s about attitude.”

The message got through.

On July 29, I saw Penner at Dodger Stadium when the Dodgers hosted Kings Night. My jaw dropped: Penner looked in shape. At Sunday’s Hockey Fest at STAPLES Center, Penner standing with his No. 25 sweater was a sight to behold.

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“The weight’s dropped, and I gained lean muscle mass,” Penner said admitting that he was carrying more body fat that he would have liked last season.

Even Murray was struck by how Penner looked.

“Penner is a much better looking person today than he was at the end of the season,” Murray remarked. “He looks strong. He looks ready. He bought into the program.”

Lombardi said that one crucial lifestyle choice helped immensely for Penner: “He moved close to the practice facilities. He’s made the kind of commitment.”

Penner said his mind was more at ease moving closer to El Segundo, although he made it clear he still owned his place in Orange County.

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“It’s very stressful driving the carpool lane without someone in the passenger seat,” Penner quipped. Penner also admitted to having “a nice conversation” with the California Highway Patrol and paying the ticket. “It’s good for the state because of the budget crisis, right?”

Jokes aside Penner said he feels better than he ever had and that there was some adjustment he needed to make in the culture of being a Los Angeles King.

“I was used to the type but not the volume [of exercises]. Getting here at 8, leaving at 2. Usually some workouts start at 9:30. It’s just a different mentality here. You get used to it. We’re all creatures of habit. After the first month it’s fine.”

With the heighten expectations in amongst the players (“Western Conference Champions” was a term being bandied about at Hockey Fest amongst the players), it certainly looks like Penner has drank the Kool-Aid and bought in. Time will tell once the season gets started early in October.