Dallas Stars v Los Angeles Kings

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.

Khudobin delivered an encouraging performance for the Bruins

Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) and left wing Brad Marchand (63) celebrate with goalie Anton Khudobin after he blocked a shot by Carolina Hurricanes left wing Jeff Skinner to win the game, 2-1, in a shootout during an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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Anton Khudobin gave the Boston Bruins a much-needed win last night.

He also gave Tuukka Rask a much-welcomed night off.

The Bruins beat the Hurricanes, 2-1, in a shootout at TD Garden. Khudobin made 29 saves, plus two more in the shootout, including the game-decider on Jeff Skinner.

It was an encouraging performance by Khudobin, who returned to the Bruins net after a conditioning stint in the AHL. It was the first time this season that a Boston goalie other than Rask was credited with a win.

“Very good,” head coach Claude Julien said of Khudobin’s play. “He deserves a lot of accolades tonight, for the way he played, the way he responded after being out such a long time. I think the fact that he went to Providence and played some games there really helped him get back on track. Tonight, he showed that he was ready to play.”

Julien added, “No doubt, there’s a lot of confidence that grew in that dressing room by watching his play and knowing that we’ve got two goaltenders that can play extremely well for us.”

The Bruins did not feel they had good enough backup goaltending the past two seasons, both of which ended outside the playoff picture. And so they bid adieu to Niklas Svedberg and Jonas Gustavsson, bringing Khudobin back into the fold on a two-year contract.

Granted, one win isn’t enough to conclude that Khudobin will be fine. He’s now 1-3-0 with a .902 save percentage, and those numbers could still be much better.

But he’ll be back in there soon enough. The Bruins have 15 more games in December, and Rask isn’t going to play them all.

Blues ‘need more’ from Lehtera, who could be healthy scratched

Jori Lehtera
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Jori Lehtera received one of his lowest ice times of the season in Thursday’s win over Tampa Bay — just 11:21 — and was demoted to the fourth line at Friday’s practice.

If that didn’t send a message, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock delivered it shortly thereafter.

“We’re going to need more from him,” Hitchcock said, per NHL.com’s Lou Korac. “The position we have him in, we need more from that position.”

Lehtera was signed to a three-year, $14.1 million extension after a solid ’14-15 campaign, in which he scored 14 goals and 44 points in 75 games. His offensive production sagged a bit last year (nine goals, 34 points in 79 games) and he’s gone through some difficult stretches this year.

The 28-year-old Finn had just three points through his first 15 games of the year, but did look as though he’d turned the corner recently. Prior to the Bolts game he had four points in four contests, including his first multi-goal effort of the season (potting a pair in a 4-2 win over Boston).

Clearly, though, Hitchcock thinks there’s more to give.

Per the Post-Dispatch, Hitch said he’s unsure if Lehtera will play on Saturday, when the Blues host the Jets. Nail Yakupov and Ty Rattie both sat out against Tampa Bay, and either one could draw into the lineup.

The Lehtera development comes with the Blues playing some of their best hockey of the year. They’ve won seven of their last eight, and are just four points back of Chicago for top spot in the Western Conference.

Pre-game reading: Some advice for Nolan Patrick

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— Up top, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones discuss the Penguins’ two-goalie situation, which GM Jim Rutherford recently admitted was not working as well as he’d hoped.

Nolan Patrick, the likely first overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft, is currently out with an injury. Tyler Benson, a top draft prospect last year who battled injuries, has some advice for Patrick: “I don’t think he should be worrying about the draft. People know what kind of player he can be. He’s played two years in this league already and he’s dominated. I think he should worry about making sure he’s 100 per cent when he comes back.” Benson was eventually selected 32nd overall by the Oilers. (The Province)

— A couple of weeks ago, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk got mad at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper after an editorial called on him to push for an outdoor game at TD Place. Yada, yada, yada, Melynk is now pushing for an outdoor game at TD Place. (Ottawa Sun)

Hampus Lindholm has been good defensively in his return to the Anaheim Ducks, but with only two assists in his first 11 games, you have to think he’ll want to start contributing more to the offense soon. Lindholm is now the highest-paid defenseman on his team, with a cap hit just over $5 million. And if the Ducks have to trade Cam Fowler at any point, they’ll need Lindholm’s offense even more. That’s just the pressure that comes with a big contract. We’ll see how he fares. (OC Register)

— In 2015-16, no Canadian teams made the NHL playoffs for the first time since 1969-70. So, how are things looking this season? Long story short, quite a bit better. Three of the seven Canadian teams are currently in a playoff spot, and the other four aren’t out of it yet. (TSN)

— What a surprise, the Winnipeg Jets hurt themselves with too many penalties last night against Edmonton. “Those early penalties and how much time we spent in the box early on killed us,” said Bryan Little. “Our PK couldn’t get it done.” This has been a problem for way too long now. Over the last three seasons combined, the Jets have gone shorthanded 686 times, the most in the NHL. Clearly, they aren’t good enough to play with such poor discipline, so perhaps they should figure it out. (Winnipeg Sun)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: It’s Chad Johnson’s net in Calgary

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Chad Johnson #31 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Buffalo Sabres during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Chad Johnson, the Flames’ goalie of record in eight of their last 10 games, will once again be in goal when Calgary hosts Minnesota on Friday night.

Johnson, as we’ve written about on numerous occasions, was terrific for the Flames in November, going 7-3-0 with a 1.80 GAA and .939 save percentage. He essentially wrestled the No. 1 gig away from Brian Elliott, and closed out the month in style by posting a 39-save shutout against Toronto on Wednesday.

As a result, Calgary has clawed back from a disappointing start to draw within one point of Nashville for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference (granted, the Flames have played four more games than the Preds).

For the Wild, Devan Dubnyk‘s in goal.

Elsewhere…

— Just one other game this evening, as Montreal takes on the Sharks in San Jose. It promises to be a quality matchup as both teams are rolling with their No. 1s: Carey Price for the Habs, Martin Jones for the Sharks.