ANAHEIM, Calif. - Although Dustin Penner only moved about 40 miles when he left the Los Angeles Kings, he's hoping his return to the Anaheim Ducks is also a trip back in time.
After 2 1/2 low-scoring seasons with the Kings, the left wing is eager to regain his elite goal-scoring form in Anaheim, where he began his NHL career and won his first Stanley Cup title in 2007.
Six years after he left the Ducks for a lucrative offer sheet in Edmonton, Penner eagerly seized the chance to return to Anaheim as a free agent. He didn't even hesitate to jump the median in the Freeway Faceoff rivalry, acknowledging he'll always have a special affinity for the Orange County club—even when he's wearing his Kings championship ring.
"I didn't know how strong the rivalry was until I crossed over, back to the dark or light side, depending on which side of the ledger you're on," Penner said Wednesday when the Ducks reported to training camp. "It's pretty interesting and comical. People were calling me a traitor, but I was initially on this team."
Coach Bruce Boudreau said Penner will start practice on the Ducks' top line with captain Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, his linemates during his first stint in Anaheim when the three young forwards came together to form the "Kid Line." Penner also is reuniting with speedy Andrew Cogliano and injured defenceman Sheldon Souray, his former Edmonton teammates.
Everything is in place for Penner to become a 20-goal scorer again—if the veteran power forward still has the skill and the will to do it.
"I'm not trying to cure him, or say, 'Hey, listen, I'll make him a better player,'" Boudreau said. "But the potential of playing with teammates that he knew and had success with, of knowing where he stands on the totem pole as far as right now, he's first-line left wing, maybe it's a motivating factor that will make him be the guy we think he can be."
Penner's return to Honda Center for the usual grind of opening-day tests and photos reminded him of the days preceding his departure six years ago, when he had long conversations with his agent about the Oilers' now-infamous offer.
"I didn't want to leave, and it was a long, arduous process that lasted about two weeks," Penner said. "He said, 'There's a good chance you'll always end up back here.' That's always the thought that was in the back of my mind when I signed, because every hockey player thinks his career is going to last long, and I was planning on mine lasting long and somehow working my way around to getting here again."
He's back with Getzlaf, Perry and the rest of the defending Pacific Division champions, who lost their first-round playoff series to Detroit in seven games. The Ducks are betting $2 million he can produce a bounce-back season with help from a coach who knows what Penner can do at his best.
"In the American League, no matter who was in the league, he was by far the best player," said Boudreau, a longtime AHL coach. "That was seven years ago, I think, when I coached against him. And I don't see—if he's in optimum shape and playing with those guys, and he's as hungry as he used to be—why he can't do the same. My bar is not set at four goals or five goals for him. We think he can be a dominant player in this league, so we're hoping that happens, but time will tell."
Although Penner showed a knack for big playoff goals during his tenure with the Kings, he knows he didn't score at the rate Los Angeles had hoped. Penner scored at least 17 goals in each of his first five NHL seasons, but managed just 11 goals in 107 regular-season games for the Kings amid questions about his fitness and adaptability.
Getzlaf said he played a prominent role in recruiting Penner, who had interest from several teams. The once-and-future linemates remained friends during Penner's absence, and Getzlaf vouched for Penner's abilities with Ducks management as well.
"I think I'll be given a bit more of an opportunity here, playing with guys that are more prone to cycling the puck and wearing down the opposition," Penner said. "For whatever reason, we clicked instantly when we were put together, and we all joined the Ducks, and even in the minors in Portland. We just have that unspoken bond when we're on the ice together."