It’s always fun when a reader feels so passionate about a subject, that he or she takes the time to write an article and sends it to us for consideration. One of our readers, Eli, has strong opinions on Dustin Penner. When I first read this, my initial reaction was, “there is a lot of truth here…and some conclusions for which he will get a little grief.” So, read away, it’s a long one, and give Eli your unedited thoughts.

Following last season’s first round exit at the hands of San Jose, the Kings organization took a number of steps in the offseason, including the massive trade for Mike Richards and signing Simon Gagne, to improve the team from playoff caliber to Stanley Cup contender. Those moves, along with the Drew Doughty drama that captivated (and frustrated) most Kings fans, were the story of the offseason. However, the Kings, 16 games into the ’11-’12 season, sit ninth in the Western Conference and three points out of the Pacific lead (but Dallas has a game in hand). This is not how it’s supposed to be.

We can blame the coaching, management, or the players, but ultimately, it’s on all three parties to contribute to a winning team. Since management and the coaching staff have not significantly changed recently (not to imply they don’t have a hand in the Kings’ struggles of late), I can’t help but look at the roster and try to find ways my team could improve. This brings me to the question that has been raised repeatedly since before last season ended – a question I’m certain all Kings fans have asked themselves and each other. Are the Kings better off without Dustin Penner?

Rich Hammond recently interviewed Dean Lombardi about the recent struggles being faced by the Kings. At one point he asked him about Penner’s struggles. Dean characterized Penner’s conditioning as “not in elite shape but he certainly made the effort to get in average shape, and he is continuing here.” This highlights an important fact:

Dustin Penner is being paid like an above average player, and he is being played like an above average player, but his conditioning is average at best and his stats are below pedestrian.

For a “top six” forward (and projected 25-30 goal scorer) to have one point more than the team’s goaltender after 14 games is pathetic. Let’s not forget that he doesn’t use his size they way he should, often fails to finish a check (if he throws one), and fails to crash the net frequently. So what can be done? There are four options: waive him, trade him, scratch him from the lineup, or assign him to the AHL affiliate in Manchester.

If Lombardi chooses to waive Penner, it would mean any other team with enough cap space could potentially claim him and use him against us. It would also mean a roster and lineup spot would open up and some moves would have to be made to find a replacement. This would have the added benefits of our not having to pay all of Penner’s salary, allowing us to find a more effective option instead of him, and would free up cap space. However, it could be problematic because he still has immense potential, which could manifest upon being claimed by another team, and waiving him would leave the Kings scrambling to find someone effective who would not disrupt the chemistry preexisting in the lines. Lombardi might also be loath to waive Penner considering that he gave up a top prospect and high draft picks to get him, though. Plus, his superiors might not approve and I doubt Lombardi would want to jeopardize his employment with that move.

Lombardi could also dangle Penner as trade bait but, in all honesty, I don’t know if there is huge demand for a still slightly overweight, non-backchecking, power forward with average conditioning, two points in 14 games, and a $4mil a year contract. What could we get for that? Prospects? Almost certainly not. Draft picks? If so, probably nothing higher than a third rounder. Actual players? Maybe, but would that be anyone we want? The downsides would likely be that Penner, like other Kings to be traded away, could regain his magical spark (think Moulson or Purcell), and that the Kings probably wouldn’t get much, if anything, in return.

Terry Murray could maybe make Penner a healthy scratch for a couple of games. With some players, getting yanked from the lineup has a motivating effect and tends to bring out the best in them. That’s only some players, though, and Terry Murray hasn’t shown himself to be the greatest motivator out there. But I digress. We could stick Penner in the press box for a couple of games and continue to pay him money to do nothing. No open roster spot, no return, no gain (unless you believe in addition by subtraction).

Lastly, the Kings could send Penner down to the AHL. I’m on board with that. I propose we send Penner to Manchester until he can get his game back. Not as punishment for sucking, but to give him a chance to play without all the pressure he is undoubtedly facing and get his shit together against some weaker competition. This is pretty much a win-win.

He will still have to go through waivers on his way down, but I don’t think anyone would want to claim him based on his performance since the Kings acquired him. If he is claimed, we are off the hook for at least part of his contract and free of the dead weight. If he goes unclaimed, we still pay the man, but at least he gets a chance to find his game again in the AHL, where he can’t hold back the Kings and lets another player get a chance to contribute. And hey, if he pulls a Souray and comes back guns blazing, even better! The only downside to that would be if he regains his previous form and we do call him back up, he would be subject to claim on re-entry waivers. Even if he were claimed then, though, it would still free up about $2mil the Kings could use in a trade or in the offseason (assuming we don’t actually win the Cup this year).

So firmly do I believe in the AHL path, that I say we could be better without Dustin Penner – at least temporarily.

Upon sending him down, we could redo the lines as such:

Gagne – Kopitar – Williams
Lewis – Richards – Brown
Richardson – Stoll – Clifford
Moreau/Parse – Fraser/Loktionov - Westgarth/Hunter

It’s extreme, I know, but bear with me for a second and I’ll try to explain.

I won’t discuss the Kopitar line. This line (and by that I mean Kopi) is the only line that has been producing anything during this skid. No need to over-tinker.

The Richards line will add Trevor Lewis at LW, in place of Penner/Parse/???. It may seem bold, because Lewis spends so much time on the third and fourth lines, but I think he, as the resident speedster on the team, would be an excellent complement to this line. Think about it: 1) the Richards line is being used as the shutdown line; 2) Penner and Parse are not and have not been excellent forecheckers or defenders; 3) Lewis is fast and he plays the PK (meaning he is a good defender); 4) he can get in on the forecheck and create havoc for opposing defenders making it harder for them to get the puck out of their zone; 5) Brown and Richards are both good defenders and they can score, so when that’s coupled with Lewis, who can get in on the dump and chase the puck down, it gives our chances for substantial offensive zone possessions a boost. That, in turn, should hopefully allow our D to join the party and get the Kings more scoring chances. Granted, Lewis hasn’t shown that he is top six caliber offensively, but if either Mitchell-Doughty or Scuderi-Johnson is out there on defense when this line is out, turning defense into offense should be possible.

The Stoll line gets Clifford and Richardson. Granted, Clifford hasn’t had the best year, but he’s young, he skates hard, he hits, he fights, and he needs a chance to get his game going. Plus, we really need a forward, aside from Brown, who can throw his body around a little, because certain 6’4″ 245 pound power forwards aren’t doing enough of it. Stoll is good, does his job well, and will stay on this line because his propensity for winning defensive zone draws is very high. Plus, his value on the powerplay is key too, so let’s not get him so tired, right? Richardson skates hard, is physical, can win draws if he has to, and can chip in some goals here and there in addition to playing any forward position.

The fourth line remains the energy line. Fraser showed he could contribute against Vancouver (and had his first goal as a King last night), but if Loktionov were called up he could create offense and play PP minutes too. Westgarth is trying to show he can actually play, like with that nifty assist on Clifford’s goal against Phoenix, Moreau is a gritty veteran but he takes too many bad penalties, Parse is Parse, and Hunter simply hasn’t looked up to form after the decent preseason that earned him the roster spot (though he did have an assist on Greene’s goal last night). This line will not get too much ice time unless we are up some, but Fraser is showing he can play and Loktionov could really use more NHL ice time to prepare him for the future as a fixture on the Kings.

What it boils down to is that, the way things are going, the Kings are better off without Penner. This is not a slight against him as a person, nor does it seek to attack his work ethic. He simply hasn’t produced for the Kings and there has to come a point where losses are cut. In something like 33 games with the Kings, he has scored two goals and six assists. Eight points. In something like 33 games he has 48 hits, 53 shots and, despite the Kings’ success on the PP this season, no PP points. He is only a minus 2 in that span, but that stat seems to only magnify the play of his linemates. Some might attribute this to the Terry Murray system, but consider: Mike Richards and Dustin Brown, Penner’s typical linemates until recently, have 35 and 42 shots this season, respectively, while Penner has 17.

The Kings are now almost a quarter of a way through a season where many considered them to be elite and some picked them as Cup contenders. If things aren’t panning out the way management (and the fans) wants, then decisions have to be made. If we won’t revamp our system, we have to at least trim the fat from the roster and give ourselves a chance by playing guys who might do a better job. It’s altogether possible that the Kings do send Penner down, do exactly what I laid out above, and continue to perform exactly the same. If that’s the case, though, at least we will know for certain that the coaching needs to be changed (personally, I already think it does), and we will give players like Lewis, Clifford, and to a lesser extent, Loktionov, a chance to show what got them spots on the team in the first place while gaining more experience and developing further.

Bold moves have were made in the offseason (I’m looking at you Doughty), and more need to be made to keep the team at optimum performance throughout the season and give it a shot at the Cup. Unfortunately, for Dustin Penner, that means time in a Monarchs sweater.

Note: Penner didn’t play 11/12 against Minnesota. Kings won 5-2. 12 different Kings had points. Kings outshot Wild 36-26. 1-5 on the PP. Most importantly, got the W. Coincidence, or evidence?