The closer we get to the Olympics, the sooner Hockey Canada is going to have to deal with the elephant in the room.
That elephant is Dustin Penner and whether or not he should be considered for the Canadian national team.
In previous years calling Penner the elephant in the room would have been a snide remark about his physical conditioning or lack there of. Which is part of what makes considering the Winkler, Man., native so controversial in the first place.
For a while Penner epitomized what was wrong with the Oilers — he was overpaid, he appeared disinterested, and he publicly fueded with the head coach. He was everything the player he was supposed to replace wasn’t. He was the anti-Ryan Smyth.
While his first year in Edmonton — after arriving from Anaheim on a massive restricted free agent contract that also cost the Oilers three draft picks — wasn’t terrible — he led the team in goal scoring with 23 while posting a career high 47 points — he didn’t create the impact the franchise was hoping he would.
His second year was an unmitigated disaster.
While Penner certainly consumes a great deal of blame for the mess, coach Craig MacTavish clearly didn’t know how to best use him or extract the best out of him — often berating him publicly.
He became his whipping boy.
If anyone needed a fresh start it was Penner.
Most Oilers fans, I think, would have preferred to cut bait almost completely — he’d be chalked up as a gamble that blew up in the organization’s face.
But with a guaranteed contract that turned into an unmovable anchor, that fresh start was either going to come in the minors or with a new coaching staff in Edmonton.
As luck would have it for the Flying Fridge, option B took place.
Pat Quinn came in preaching a clean slate for everyone.
Some players like Robbie Schremp, Robert Nilsson, and Marc-Antoine Pouliot didn’t take advantage of the situation and have either been jettisoned or buried on the depth chart.
Penner, however, came into camp in shape — and unlike myself he wasn’t claiming round is a shape — and he has played above what I’m sure were the Oilers’ original expectations when they got him to sign on the line for five-years and $21.25 million.
He has been by far their best forward.
He kills penalties, he plays the power play and probably most impressively he has learned to use his considerable size to his advantage as a means to hold off checkers.
He got off to hot start, but any talk of it was almost always followed up with a comment about a suspected fall off.
The thing is, that fall off hasn’t occurred.
Heading into last night’s game against the Colorado Avalanche he was ninth in the league in scoring with 12 goals and 11 assists for 23 points in 21 games. Most impressively his plus-10 rating is seventh best in the league.
I think Hockey Canada was banking on a fall off as well.
But here’s the thing: he has outscored many of the assumed surefire members of Team Canada including Sidney Crosby (21 points), Jarome Iginla (18), Ryan Getzlaf (22), Jeff Carter (19), Vincent Lecavalier (17), Martin St. Louis (19), Mike Richards (17), Jonathan Toews (nine) and Shane Doan (14).
The other big issue Team Canada is facing right now is they have more top centremen than they know what to do with.
When it comes to elite left wingers there is a huge hole existing after Dany Heatley and Ryan Smyth both of which have 23 points and even Smyth isn’t considered a lock. If you go strictly by points the next elite left winger is John Tavares at 19 points, but I don’t think many have him penciled into the lineup — if they’ll sit Crosby for an Olympic cycle, Tavares is likely bound for a similar fate.
And I’m not about to proclaim Rene Bourque (21) or James Neal (20) an elite left winger. I’m not even saying Penner has secured that status either.
However, when Penner’s total package is considered, and if Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman is going to take those that are playing the best, they will be faced with considering him for the team.
That being said what could hold him back is that Penner only really reached his potential when the expectations were the absolute lowest. At the Olympics expectations will never be higher and that could seal his fate for Team Canada.