Dustin Penner response to GM Dean Lombardi’s softball comment, “more kindling for the fire”

It’s no secret that Los Angeles Kings have seen plenty of action this offseason. Between trading for Mike Richards, signing Simon Gagne as a free agent, negotiating with star defenseman Drew Doughty, and (very publicly) courting Brad Richards, there’s no shortage of story lines surrounding the organization. Yet many believe a big part of their success next season will hinge on a player who is already under contract for next season: Dustin Penner.

More specifically, it will hinge on Penner’s conditioning and work in the offseason. Scouts around the league agree that he has all the tools to be a star player in the NHL, but his conditioning has been called into question in the past.  Earlier this spring, Kings GM Dean Lombardi made waves when he spoke of his free agent acquisition Dustin Penner and his perceived lack of fitness when he arrived with the Kings in March.

“Dustin is at the crossroads of his career,” Lombardi wrote in an email to Sporting News. “He can choose to use his athletic ability to either become a dominant power forward in the National Hockey League or be a dominant number four hitter for the El Cid Lounge in a men’s softball league — the choice is his.”

Now we have a response from Penner:

“I’m a pretty good softball player. What he’s saying is… if you’re an intelligent hockey player in the position I’m in I know what he’s saying and I know what he wants out of me. [It’s] just more kindling for the fire.”

Penner’s short tenure with the Kings has already been filled with its share of speed bumps. He only scored 2 goals and 6 points in 19 regular season games after he was acquired at the trade deadline (Penner was quick to point out that he was a point-per-game player at the beginning of his stint before Anze Kopitar was lost for the season). In the playoffs, he chipped in a goal and an assist before the Kings were bounced in 6 games against the San Jose Sharks. Expectations were certainly higher for the team than another first round exit after the high profile addition–but things didn’t work out for Penner or the Kings as they would have hoped.

Kings fans can take solace in the fact that Penner is already showing up to the Kings training facility three times per week to get into the best shape of his career for next season. The hard work is something that head coach Terry Murray has noticed:

“I’m really happy about that. This goes back to a conversation we had right at the end of the year. It’s important to know who we are, as an LA King and become part of OUR team, and our culture, and our structure. To be a player who I expect him to be. To play upwards of 20 minutes a night in a game, it’s going to demand a lot on the physical side of it. He’s been here since the end of the season. He’s worked very hard with (strength and conditioning coach) Tim Adams and we’re starting to see some signs of progress.”

Later, Murray agreed that Penner’s pride that could be a motivating factor after the harsh criticism he received during his few months with the Kings.

“Pride is a very good word. I think sometimes as coaches and people in management and even people in the media, we have a tendency to go in that direction and see if there’s going to be a response. Hopefully there’s a reaction here… and it’s a positive reaction. We need him to just follow through with what he’s been doing so far for the rest of the summer. It’s a big, big push and he’s got some catching up to do. This last couple of months is going to be critical and important so I CAN use him in those situations and live up to the expectations. So he can be the player that he knows he can be.”

For his part, Penner has already talked about how he wants to bring his game to a new level next season. In addition to winning, he’s “shooting for personal bests in his statistical categories and to become more of a leader.” From all accounts, he’s received the message from the organization loud and clear. The dedication he’s been showing since the season ended is proof that he’s doing something about it.

It’s interesting to hear that Penner said he was surprised with the difficulty of the workouts when he was traded to the Kings mid-season last year. Hard work and getting to the best possible condition for the season isn’t something that be new to an NHL player. Terry Murray agreed:

“I don’t like to hear that. I think players should know that they have to work hard. This is a business where that is a given. Hard work is the foundation of what it’s all about to bring your skill out. Most importantly for Dustin though is that he’s talking about it and he’s doing it. And he’s getting himself ready for the training camp here and I want him to be able to step on the ice, do the testing that we do on the first day, and then as we get into the practice start to play at a high level, execute the structure and the system that we want to play, and be able to do it through the 60 minutes. And that’s what it’s all about. Play the game the right way, and that to me is in top physical condition.

“I’m encouraged. We’re pushing him here, there’s no doubt about that. We talked about this right at the end of the year. He understands. This is a big year for him. Coming from Edmonton and coming back to California, playing for the Los Angeles Kings. He knows he has something to prove. He’s got great talent, he’s got great ability. It’s at a time where you have to make that decision to get it done. Time moves on very quickly and if you’re going to let it slide until now you’re 30 years old, you might not be able to catch up. So he’s doing the right thing and I’m excited for him. He’s been hungry and excited and on board with everything we’ve asked him to do.”

We’ll see how things play out when training camps roll around in September. He’s always had the size and skill to be one of the best players in the league—but work ethic has been a question mark. By all accounts, it looks like Dustin Penner will be in the best shape of his career and motivated to silence his critics. For now, he’s doing all he can to make the most of his opportunity next season.

No Kane, no problem for Panarin in Columbus

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After the trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Brandon Saad back to Chicago, many wondered if Panarin could produce at a high level without Patrick Kane. In hindsight, maybe there should have been just as many worries about how much Kane would lose in Panarin’s absence.*

Panarin, 26, really forced his strong debut season with the Blue Jackets during his last game. He generated a hat trick and an assist as the Blue Jackets won their ninth game in a row by beating the Rangers, giving him 15 points during that span.

To give you an idea of how hot Panarin has been, only Mikko Rantanen has more points (16) during the last nine games, while “The Bread Man” matches Nathan MacKinnon‘s 15 points. Panarin brings quite the streak into tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers, who have a ton on the line.

Overall, you can dice up Panarin’s 68 points in 74 games in some interesting ways. More directly, he’s currently tied with Jamie Benn and Patrik Laine for 25th place in points, just two behind Kane. Panarin scored 77 points as a rookie and 74 last season, so he’s clearly not wholly dependent upon number 88.

It also sounds like Panarin is presenting a positive influence on the Blue Jackets, who boast some interesting young scorers who could really push them to a higher level if they pan out.

Oliver Bjorkstrand stands as one of the most intriguing examples. He’s a guy who’s had a knack for scoring at other levels, yet it remains to be seen if he can be a difference-maker in the NHL. The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline recently reported (sub required) that Panarin’s providing a strong example to Bjorkstrand, in particular.

“The Bread Man” stands to Bjorkstrand as a player who can get it done despite modest size.

“He’s obviously really talented, has a ton of skill. But it’s his work ethic, how hard he is on pucks,” Bjorkstrand said. “He wins almost every battle he’s in, a lot of times against guys that are a lot bigger than him. But he has the determination to come away with the puck.”

The numbers seem to back up that “strong on the puck” talk.

Panarin’s possession stats have actually improved with the Blue Jackets, with his numbers standing out even more relative to his teammates. While John Tortorella is still rolling him out in advantageous situations (65.2 percent of his shifts begin in the offensive zone), that’s a big drop from his 78.8 percent mark in Chicago.

So, in a way, Panarin is proving himself to be possibly even more valuable with Columbus, as he’s less of a specialist and more of a balanced driver of play.

Panarin is a few strides short of Hart Trophy talk, but he’s done about as much as anyone could reasonably ask to prove that he’s a legitimate top-line talent, and a key ingredient to a team that could be very dangerous in the playoffs.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

* – Much like before Panarin’s arrival, Kane is still a lethal scorer with 70 points in 74 games this season.

Still, he reached the apex of his career making magic with Panarin, as he collected 106 points in 2015-16 (a career-high) and 89 in 2016-17. Those rank as his two strongest regular seasons, with only 2009-10’s 88 points in the same range. Otherwise, his next highest point total was 73 points, although he’s on track to eclipse that this season.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL on NBCSN Doubleheader: Capitals at Red Wings; Golden Knights at Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Thursday night. In the early game, the Detroit Red Wings host the Washington Capitals at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

The Capitals have an opportunity to put a little distance between themselves and the second place Pittsburgh Penguins tonight. Washington is two points ahead of the Pens with a game in a hand, so a win tonight would put them four points clear of second.

The Caps got some good news, as Evgeny Kuznetsov (upper body) made the trip to Detroit. Kuznetsov suffered an upper-body injury against the Isles last week. Even though he’s traveling, it’s unclear if he’ll actually suit up tonight.

Since losing back-to-back games in Anaheim and Los Angeles, the Capitals have rattled off five victories in their last six contests. That includes a win in San Jose, a win over the Jets, a pair of wins over the Islanders and a victory over Dallas.

As for the Red Wings, they’ll look to play spoiler again. They’re 5-4 overtime win over the Flyers on Tuesday night allowed to snap their 10-game losing skid. Before Tuesday’s game, you had to go all the way back to Feb. 25 to find Detroit’s last victory. Yeah, it took them long enough.

Even though they aren’t in the playoff picture, there’s no denying the win felt good for the struggling Wings.

“We talked about it as a team after the last game, certainly frustration was starting to boil over,” coach Jeff Blashill said after the win over Philly, per the Detroit News. “Our guys came out and played great. The third period wasn’t good enough, but we played great for two periods (and) to finish was critical.

“You don’t want to come in here and talk about another loss. It was critical (to win).”

Blashill’s team currently find themselves in 26th place with 65 points. A few more losses down the stretch and they’ll be able to improve their NHL Entry Draft lottery odds.

In the late game, the San Jose Sharks host the Vegas Golden Knights at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

The Golden Knights are still at least eight points clear of any other team in the Pacific Division, but there’s no denying that their play has dipped. Of course, that was to be expected. Not because they’re an expansion team, but because every team in the league takes a dip at a certain point over an 82-game season.

In fairness to Vegas, they have won back-to-back games over Calgary and Vancouver, but injuries have been problematic for them of late. Now, it looks like they’ll have to deal with another injury, as Marc-Andre Fleury. As you’ll probably remember, they faced a pretty tough test earlier in the season when Fleury, Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk were all hurt.

Head coach Gerard Gallant was pretty on Wednesday when he was asked about Fleury’s status.

“I’m not getting into specifics about what he’s doing, but he’s not going to come today,” Gallant said, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “He could join us tomorrow or in the very near future.

“He’s not coming on our plane today. He could be there tomorrow. He could be there the next day. I’m not sure.”

Since then, they recalled Dansk from the minors. So don’t expect to see Fleury in San Jose.

The Sharks are eight points behind Vegas for that top seed in the division. Both teams have played 73 games, so it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to catch the expansion side with only nine games remaining. Winning tonight would obviously make that a little more possible.

Since dropping a 2-0 home decision to the Caps, the Sharks have rattled off five straight wins.

“You always find out what the group’s made of when they’re pushed up against the wall,” head coach Pete DeBoer said, per the San Jose Mercury News. “We were in a group, a couple weeks ago, of five or six teams that were all pretty much in the same spot and we’ve found a way to separate ourselves.”

San Jose has certainly separated themselves from the pack, as they’re three points ahead of Anaheim (third place) with a game a hand.

It’ll be interesting to see how they handle themselves against the number two team in the conference.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it time for ‘Hawks and Quenneville to split?

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Erik Karlsson and his wife, Melinda, issued a statement on Wednesday after they lost their unborn child earlier in the week. “At this extremely difficult time, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we do know one day we’ll get there.” (Ottawa Citizen)

• It’s been a tough year for the Blackhawks, so is it time for the team and Joel Quenneville to part ways? (Chicago Sun-Times)

• The Golden Knights have battled goalie injuries earlier this season and they’ll have to do that again because Marc-Andre Fleury is hurt again. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• Do we put too much emphasis on a potential Hart Trophy winner being on a team that makes the playoffs? Faceoffcircle.ca argues that Connor McDavid deserves to be in the MVP race. (Faceoff Circle)

• Speaking of the Hart Trophy, Nathan MacKinnon is one of the favorites to win the award, but Mikko Rantanen might hurt his chances of taking it home. (Mile High Hockey)

• A Journal of Neurotrauma study showed that 64 percent of the 309 players that went through the NHL’s concussion protocol between 2008-09 and 2016-17 didn’t play in the league three full seasons later. (TSN.ca)

• Since the Ian Cole trade happened, the Penguins penalty kill has been in trouble. (Pensburgh.com)

• Minnesota Twins pitcher Phil Hughes is crazy about the Tampa Bay Lightning. Believe it or not, former Bolt Ryan Malone is the reason he became such a huge fan. (Tampa Times)

• The Washington Capitals need to make sure Evgeny Kuznetsov is healthy for the start of the playoffs. Without him, their depth at center takes a significant hit. (Fan Rag Sports)

• The Markham Thunder and Kunlun Red Star will meet in the Clarkson Cup final. The Victory Press has a full preview of the series. (The Victory Press)

• Team USA’s Monique Lamoureux-Morando has been hired to be an analyst on NHL Network. (Grand Forks Herald)

Steven Stamkos was fined $5,000 for tripping Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly on Tuesday night. (NHL.com)

• The South Korean hockey team admits that they miss playing on the same team as North Koreans. The South Koreans are currently playing in a tournament and they have a few injuries to deal with. (NBC Olympics)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. By the way, Ryan Donato scored again.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Schwartz the hero, Gibson blanks Flames, Bruins clinch

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Players of the Night:

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues: The Blues needed a win on Wednesday. They’ll need a few more still if they’re to push for the playoffs, but Schwartz scored a third-period equalizer and then the overtime winner 30 seconds into the extra frame to keep pace with the Anaheim Ducks (who won) for the second and final wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson posted his third shutout in his past seven starts — and fourth of the season — saving all 29 shots that came his way in a 4-0 triumph of the Calgary Flames.

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins: Malkin continued his pursuit of the Hart Trophy, netting a goal and adding an assist for his 41st goal (three back of Alex Ovechkin) and 91st point (three back of Nikita Kucherov).

Highlights of the Night:

Sidney Crosby did a thing – a very nice thing:

Jaden Schwartz, end-to-end to end the game:


Factoids of the Night:


Penguins 5, Canadiens 3

Coyotes 4, Buffalo 1

Blues 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

Ducks 4, Flames 0

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck