EDMONTON - When it comes to Dustin Penner of the Edmonton Oilers, bigger isn't necessarily better.
"Big" was the word of the day when Penner reported to training camp a year ago. He made big headlines when he left the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks for a US$21.25-million offer sheet with Edmonton.
With Penner coming off a 29-goal season, the expectations of fans were as overblown as the 10-fold increase in his salary.
Then, there was Penner himself. He weighed 255 pounds when camp began and was thrust into first-line minutes with Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky by coach Craig MacTavish.
And, while Penner overcame a slow start to finish with a team-leading 23 goals, he was deemed a big disappointment by some critics.
Fast forward to now, and Penner is eight pounds lighter, a year removed from the spotlight and hoping third line's the charm with Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani.
He's no big deal.
"It's definitely a different feeling coming back this year," Penner said. "I think a lot of it last year could be attributed to coming to a new team and leaving a Stanley Cup team. Then, you tack on the new contract.
"There were a lot of elements I had to adjust to and deal with. At least now, I know what to expect. I feel more comfortable."
Penner, who turns 26 on Sunday, struggled making the transition from third-liner with Anaheim to top-line duty. His numbers - 23-24-47 and a minus-12 - provided an uncomfortable juxtaposition with his place as the team's highest-paid forward at $4.25 million.
With a short off-season because of the Stanley Cup run, Penner's conditioning wasn't up to par. That, plus ice time that averaged 17:12 a game, was a lethal combination early. He scored just four goals in his first 26 games.
"This summer was a big difference and a welcome change," said Penner of having four months instead of two to prepare for camp.
"The way my seasons had been going before I was here, I'd been in playoffs pretty much every year. This was the longest off-season I can remember."
MacTavish is betting moving Penner from left wing to the right side with Moreau and Pisani will be a case of less-is-more. It's reasonable argument, considering during his 29-goal season, Penner averaged 13:59 of ice time per game.
"He can be productive on less minutes," MacTavish said. "Normally, it would be a real step back for a guy who played all those minutes on the first line and got first-line power play and all that stuff, but Dustin looks at himself as more of a mucker.
"I'm expecting, based on where he's playing, the goals will drop off but his effectiveness will increase. His overall game will be better. He'll be a bigger contributor than he was last year."
Erik Cole will take Penner's place with Horcoff and Hemsky. MacTavish wants to keep the Kid Line of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson together.
That leaves Moreau, who scored 20 goals in 2003-04, Pisani and Penner on a line that's not only got offensive potential but that weighs in at almost 700 pounds.
"It's 685 pounds. I did the math," smiles Moreau. "I think he's going to be able to simplify his game but he's still going to be on a line that can create a lot of offence.
"We play a simple game, Fernando and I, and I think he'll fit in great. It gives us three lines than can provide offence and takes some pressure off our young guys. He's a big strong guy with great hands. It's up to him to utilize what he has. He's done it before."
Penner's big season in Anaheim came on what was essentially the third line with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
"Chopper (Moreau) and Pies (Pisani) are closer to Getzlaf and Perry in the sense of working down low," Penner said. "They're physical, whereas Hemmer and Horcoff were more give-and-go and working off each other."
Aside from even-strength minutes, Penner will remain a fixture on the power play. Thirteen of Penner's 23 goals last season came with a man-advantage.
"For me, I'm a complimentary player," Penner said. "I have to find my niche in any line that I'm on. My role changes."