Dustin Penner returns to Anaheim still searching for a fit with the Capitals

March 18

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – As the Anaheim Ducks wrapped up their morning skate Tuesday at Honda Center, several skated to the visitors’ bench to catch up with former teammate and current Capitals winger Dustin Penner.

It’s been two weeks since Anaheim traded the hulking forward to the Capitals for a 2014 fourth-round draft pick in a move that few saw coming, Penner and his Ducks teammates included, making for what the 31-year-old described as an “awkward” reunion.

It also doesn’t help the transition that through his first seven games with Washington, Penner has yet to find a defined role in the lineup.

“There’s many ways I took it. I just try to settle on the best way,” Penner said of his surprise at being traded on March 4. “I think this will be a big step towards getting through it. Obviously it’s the same cliché answer, I still have a lot of friends on that team, won a Cup here, blah, blah, blah. It’s part of the job, but that’s the underbelly that people don’t see.”

Penner signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Ducks as an unrestricted free agent last summer and recorded 13 goals and 32 points in 49 games before the trade while skating primarily on their top line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Over the course of his career, he’s been accustomed to a top-six role and was in that spot when he won Stanley Cups with both Anaheim (2007) and Los Angeles (2012).

While many thought Penner would receive an audition with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom after the Capitals acquired him, that combination has yet to skate together. Coach Adam Oates prefers to have a speedy player in that role and Penner doesn’t fit that mold.

“I don’t think that’s his skill-set, so I don’t know if it matches,” Oates said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but off the top of my head it’s not what I saw. But that could change, you never know.”

Penner skated his first few games with Washington on the second line with Troy Brouwer and a rotating cast of centers. But as Oates continues to shuffle combinations, Penner has most often been on the fourth line that, heading into Tuesday’s game against Anaheim, includes rookie Tom Wilson and AHL call-up Casey Wellman.

Whether it was the adaptation to a new team, the style of play in the Eastern Conference or another factor, Penner didn’t make much impact in his first several games with the Capitals. It wasn’t until Sunday’s 4-2 win over Toronto that he recorded his first point for Washington, but that play – a no-look pass to set up Joel Ward on the power play – showed what the veteran winger can bring to the table when he’s engaged in the game.

“I thought [against Toronto] he moved his feet and he was really a factor in the game. I really liked what I saw,” Oates said. “You’ve got to be fair because he’s coming to a different team, it’s different hockey and we’ve talked about it a lot in terms of chemistry and how you fit, which way we play versus the last team he played on. Some guys got to get comfortable.”

Moving his feet is a common phrase heard in discussions of Penner, who has received criticism about his fitness level over the course of his career. This fall, he arrived at Ducks training camp out of shape and was a healthy scratch for the season opener.

“When he’s moving his legs and constantly skating, he’s good, real good. When he used to get in to trouble is when he’s standing around,” Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said, adding that he doesn’t expect that to be a problem when Penner faces his former team. “He’s going to be excited about playing here [Tuesday] so I’m sure so he’ll be moving his legs quite well.”

His play against the Leafs offered a look at that side of Penner’s game, but it’s uncertain how much of a difference maker he can be for the Capitals especially in a limited role at even strength. Penner shrugged off the notion of evaluating himself based on the points he does or doesn’t put up with Washington this season, though.

“At this time of year individual points mean less, team points mean way more,” said Penner, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. “I think the only way individual points help now is for teams that aren’t in it and guys that need contracts.”

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