Bobby and Surly have graciously invited me to become a regular contributor to their site. I hope to continue the tradition of producing quality content with an edge while still having a shitload of fun. I plan on focusing on many of the financial and business aspects of the team as I passionately believe that while players win games, organizations win championships. As an ardent Kings fan for ten plus years, I live and die with this team and dream of the day when we hoist the Cup.
In the movie A Bronx Tale, the character played by Robert De Niro was a lowly bus driver who competed with the local, glamorous mobster in the education of the former’s son. De Niro, while taking his son to work, demonstrated to him how one can take pride in performing even the most menial of jobs. While unable to compete with the money and power his son’s gangster friend offered, De Niro reminded his son that the worst thing in the world is wasted talent.
While bringing back Jarret Stoll makes a lot of sense, I am far less sanguine on Dustin Penner’s future with the LA Kings. In fact, let me go one step further and say that even if Penner has a great season, he should not be retained. Let’s take a closer look why. On the positive side, Penner is a man with unique gifts – tremendous size combined with more than adequate mobility and very soft hands. This is a skill set ideally suited to the new NHL in that he can penetrate even the most suffocating of traps. When he wants to, Penner can produce. He has scored as many as 32 goals and 63 points in a season. But, let’s take a closer look at his numbers. His first full season with the Ducks was also the final year of his entry-level contract. Penner was a key part of a Ducks team that won a Stanley Cup, scoring 29 goals and 45 points. At that point, Penner got lucky when a desperate Oiler team looked to make a splash and tendered an offer sheet of 5 years $4.25 mm. This was far above market value for a winger who had played only one full season in the NHL, and Brian Burke refused to match.
In Edmonton, Penner quickly found himself in Coach Craig McTavish’s dog house. While his point total rose in his first year as an Oiler, Penner did not break out as the dominant player the Oilers had hoped for when they signed him to what was at the time a huge deal. Moreover, in his second season in Alberta, Penner actually regressed by ten points leading his coach to call him out on his work ethic and motivation. It was only in his third season when Dustin score 32 goals and 63 points where he arguably played up to his contract. We all know what happened last season where Penner once again took a step back and showed up in LA in February dreadfully out of shape and unable to help the Kings advance in the playoffs. At this point, Penner, now 28, is completely out of excuses.
What does this tell us about Dustin Penner as a person? As well paid professionals, all of us have inherent obligations that go with the job. For a lawyer, it is keeping up with the legal code that governs his area of practice. Doctors have to constantly study the relevant drug formularies. For a professional athlete, it is simple, stay in shape. Many of us do that as a matter of course, taking up precious time in our day, for the health benefits even though we are not paid a dime for our efforts. Penner, on the other hand is paid $4.25 mm dollars a year to stay in shape. Put another way, he has only two things he must do each day outside of an actual game – go to practice and work out. Based on what we saw last year, he failed to perform his primary responsibility as a professional. Worse yet, because Penner is an extremely gifted athlete, one with abilities that lots of players with far less skill would die for, he can be accused of wasting away his talent. In addition, Penner played on a losing team going nowhere- that we all know. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he quit on his teammates. Having served in the military, I remember you can complain all you want about the mission, the living conditions and your commanding officer, but you never, ever let the guy next to you down. It is sad to think that Penner, going into the fourth decade of his life, still has not learned this basic lesson.
Looking forward, all reports indicate that Penner has been working out hard this summer. Funny what a little shame and a contract year can do for one’s attitude. There is little doubt he is going to get lots of quality minutes playing with excellent line mates and will have every opportunity to succeed. With his skill set, a 50-60 point season is the floor for what we should expect this season from Dustin, and he could be even better. That will make him eligible for a big payday. Direct comparables are difficult to find, but Shane Doan at $4.55 mm would be at the very low-end and Rick Nash at $7.8 mm at the top of the spectrum of what Penner can expect as a salary on the open market. Given Penner’s age and the fact this will be his last big contract, he will probably be looking for a deal between $5.5 and $6.5 million if he hits or exceeds 60 points. Perhaps, he could be had at the low-end of that range given that his home is in Los Angeles, and his wife has her career here.
I believe the Kings should pass on such a deal. Despite a matchless skill set that is as rare as it is a marvel to observe when properly honed, do the Kings really want to commit that much cap space to a player that only works hard when in a contract year? Yes, 60 point power forwards do not grow on trees and size cannot be coached, but in Dean Lombardi’s system, with its emphasis on building from the back forward, there is only room for one highly paid wing within our salary structure. That cannot and should not be given to a player who needs to be pushed by his coaches rather than motivating himself and one who has grown disinterested playing on a losing team. Doing so would send the wrong message to the locker room while at the same time disrupting the culture which Lombardi is working so hard to build on the Los Angeles Kings.