No Cattle Prod Required

How do you motivate Dustin Penner?  The question was asked of Randy Carlyle a few years ago when the winger was with the Ducks.

“Ever hear of an electric cattle prod?” came the response along with Carlyle’s trademark mischievous smile.  It was, to the best of my recall, on a night when the undrafted giant was in the middle of a good stretch.  From Anaheim he went to Edmonton, where the push to do well was from local fans and constant media attention.

Now in LA, Penner is in a situation where there’s much less scrutiny.  Is that going to work, or not?  IH talked to him to get the truth.

First, the back story.  He went to Edmonton to high acclaim and big bucks, and, to many minds, flopped, at least in the early going.  His coming to the Kings last week was not a dump, however, but a pickup designed to complement what is already a strong lineup.  The word in the press and amongst the fans for months has been “Kopitar needs a left winger.”  Last summer, Kovalchuk was going to be an add (to the team, not for Kopitar particularly).  Then everyone had Brad Richards coming to the coast.  Obviously, neither thing happened, and Penner looks to be a perfect pickup in the absence of something spectacular.

In fact, it’s just the kind of move the Kings are wont to make—not over the top.  Nothing to upset the balance of what is a rather conservative organization when it comes to player personnel.

Plus, Penner brings some key intangibles.  He’s big; he’s had success.  He gets the West coast, because not only has he lived here but also kept his home for the three years he’s been away.  The question is, what does he expect to do in LA?  Is he seeing himself as the guy who can lead the team to the latter part of the playoffs, or just another guy on a tight and, at least at this point in the season, well-coached and successful team?

It’s practically impossible to read the team’s take on him.  Coach Murray said in the media that Penner wasn’t necessarily the key to pushing the team over the top.  Rather, he was a solid and needed acquisition.  He was not coming in to be a savior.  Fair enough, but not good enough for some in the press.

Eric Duhatschek, acclaimed writer for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, said that Murray’s saying so marked a smart move, one which would lower expectations.

Eric’s a great writer, but he’s clearly focused on his Canadian audience and has missed the point that in LA, there really aren’t a lot of expectations.  Not that many people here care about hockey, hard as that is to say for a diehard.  In Canada, it might be that a coach was trying to lower expectations, because there would be high ones.

Consider that the recent Sports Business Journal article which talked about the TV ratings pointed out that local numbers for LA are among the five worst in the league.  Just behind them is Anaheim.  The number for LA is a .44 market share, for Anaheim .38.  Compare that to the top of the league, Pittsburgh, which gets a 9.05.  That number represents a little over 100,000 households.

Florida, at the bottom of the league, has a .19, which is about 3000 households.  What nobody says is how to read the numbers, but if one assumes that it’s percentage of market share, then LA, at less than half of one percent, gets about 20,000 households out of 5 million (my estimate) watching local broadcasts of the Kings.  In other words, it’s likely that more people accidentally leave the TV on and exit the house with it tuned to a show like TMZ than are purposely tuning in to hockey.

So is it a big marvel that the attention to the Penner trade has largely come in the niche world of fan sites?  Sure, the LA Times had its say, with the headline reading “Kings’ Acquisition of Dustin Penner Creates Most Noise on a Quiet Trade Deadline Day.”  Actually, it might have, but only because of the Canadian connection.  Look at tsn.ca for proof of that.  And note that the headline is not the responsibility of the writer, and that the story under this one was not sensational as the headline suggests it might be.  It was, rather, quite understated, though the article said that Dustin Penner’s coming to LA was “the biggest splash in a quiet pond.”  That was February 28th.

The next day, it was “Newest King Dustin Penner Likes What He Sees in Los Angeles.”  By Wednesday, “Dustin Penner Makes a Big Impression on His New Kings Teammates.”  This was the piece where Murray was quoted as saying that he wants solid play, not a savior, in Penner.  That might be lowering expectations, or it might not be strategic at all, but just what he wants, plain and simple.  And note that by day three, the news was decidedly ho-hum.  Not so in Edmonton.

The Times piece ends by commenting on the more than $20 million offer sheet that took Penner from the Ducks to the Oilers, but says, “Neither the Oilers nor Penner got what they bargained for.”

So what’s he supposed to do in, or better for, LA?  Score goals.  Be a big body in front of the net.  Provide a year-plus of solid service, even if the team doesn’t resign him after next season.  Maybe really light it up and collect another twenty million for a few more years’ work.

The question for Penner is whether he’s the kind of player who’s better off when he knows nobody much cares or better when he’s aware that his every move, on and off the ice, is being examined.

In Edmonton, it was an everyday thing for his play to be dissected.  Small conversations in practice that are reported in LA to be discussions about where linemates want him or what he should do in this or that situation would be big deals in the Edmonton Journal.  Hand gestures might turn into signs of impending dissension.

Consider that on Saturday, March 5th, nearly a week after the player was traded, a story ran on him in the Edmonton paper.  “Penner’s Play Polarized Oilers Faithful,” it said.  The discussion was whether Penner was lazy, or the team’s most effective player over the past three seasons.

Really?  You mean this hasn’t been talked about before now?  You mean there’s really something new to be said on this matter?  You know what, people?  It’s over.  Penner’s traded.  Time to move on.  There must be something else in Edmonton to discuss.

When I mentioned the story to Penner on Saturday after the Kings lost to Vancouver, 3-1, he said, “Oh yeah?  I guess they have a tough time letting go, if they’re still writing articles four or five days later.  But I think that’s the way it is in the fishbowl up there.  Um, I was used to it.  I think all the guys up there are used to it and the young guys are getting used to it.  I think it doesn’t affect me, and I don’t really care about it now, either.”

There’s some candor for you.

For the player’s part, it wouldn’t be surprising that he’s glad to be out of there and away from the spotlight.  But again, the question is, and keeping Carlyle’s point above in mind—what will get this guy going?  Is it constant harassment and scrutiny?  If so, he’s not going to do much in his new home.  Is it privacy to work his game as he can?  Then he might do OK.

Is it a coach who will poke at him and maybe, on occasion, say something a little bit outrageous?  Don’t expect that from Murray.  He’s more the grandfather type, reserved. Players know what they’re expected to do, but he’s not going to embarrass them, either in practice, in private, or in the press.

Gann Matsuda of FrozenRoyalty.net, for instance, reported that at practice this past Thursday, Murray had said of Jonathan Quick’s Monday performance against the Wings, which led to the decision to sit him the next night, “I’ve got to see performance.  If I’m seeing something with another player, as you know, in my decisions, at any time, I’ll take a player out if he’s not performing, or if he’s having a real difficult day.”  Not exactly harsh.

Speaking of Carlyle and Murray, Penner told IH, “It’s been a while since I played for Carlyle, but he’s a lot more vocal on the bench and to his players.  Terry has a calming effect, on his players.  He’s not a yeller and screamer.  I’ve enjoyed playing for him so far.  I don’t know him as well as the other guys in the room [do], but I’d say we’re off to a good start, as far as our relationship.”

So add it up–a market with much less coverage than his prior one, and a coach with a more gentle approach than the one he had last time he played in the state.

On the other side of it, if Penner is traded away a season from now for some reason, will anyone in LA be discussing it a week after it happens?  Of course not, because there’s other stuff to talk about (none of which matters to me, but hey, some people think that grapefruit league games or whatever they call spring training now have playoff implications), and because almost nobody, as I’ve already covered, is even talking about his trade here, now.  Kings’ fans have absorbed it and moved on.

That’s not to say nobody’s interested.  If there’s one salvation it’s that at least LA is hotter for hockey right now than Anaheim is.  The two markets are not that different in terms of TV numbers, as note in the aforementioned Sports Business Journal story.  But home crowds tell a different story.  Take Friday and Saturday of this week.  The Ducks had Dallas in town Friday at 7pm, and they announced about 12,000 attendees (capacity is 17174).  One press person I talked to said he doubted there were 10,000 there, and that vast sections in the upper seats were completely empty.

In LA, the house was full Saturday for a 1pm game.  Now, this had something to do with the fact that Vancouver was in town, and thousands of people in Canucks’ sweaters showed up.  The national anthems, sung by some Canadian pop stars I’d never heard of (and I’m Canadian, so we tend to keep track of who our heroes are), were sung along with by what sounded like half the crowd.  And every play on either side was cheered.

A further irony is that the Ducks get a lot more press coverage from their paper, the OC Register, than the Kings do from the Times.  So if one team should have a higher interest level from fans, it might be Anaheim.  But for now, the focus of hockey in SoCal is squarely on LA.  It’s just that this doesn’t translate into the kind of media attention it would north of the border, and Penner seems OK with that.  More–happy to be given some room to live.

But to the ice.  What’s Penner done?  Purely on numbers, by suiting up he makes himself the team’s sixth-leading scorer.  And on Saturday, he added a notch to that with his first goal playing on a line with Richardson and Williams.  (Early in the game, he was with Kopitar and Williams, as well as later.)

Read it as the kind of goal he’s supposed to score.  It was a scramble out of the left-side corner in Vancouver’s end.  He brought the puck with him out of a crowd and carried Aaron Rome with him.  Pretty soon, Maxim Lapierre was on him, too.  Penner bulled toward the net and shoveled the puck on goal.  It hit a stick or something, and caromed up and in.  Luongo was already cheating toward the center of the net in anticipation of the puck going there and with Penner’s linemate Williams moving in on goal.

He described it to me by saying, “Hopefully there will be a few more.  It was a lucky bounce.  I was looking for Willie [Williams] back door.  But in this type of game, you just get to pucks to the net and you never know what happens.”  His effort on the night was that goal, two shots, and about 16:30 on the ice.

Of his line, he says the chemistry will come.  “[The comfort level] is getting there.  Two games and two practices.  I’ll feel better after tomorrow, and the next game.  If you ask either of them [his linemates Kopitar and Williams] I think they’ll tell you we didn’t have the kind of game we need to as a line, you know.  We have to be better.  I know I have to be better.”

An electric cattle prod may not be necessary this time around in California.

Notes

Those thousands of Vancouver fans were vocal all game, but not terribly polite.  Come on, Canadians.

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