Dustin Penner turns 31 on Saturday, and the words were barely out of my mouth when he answered what would be the best gift possible.
"I’ll take a goal," the Ducks winger told ESPN.com over the phone Wednesday morning.
Penner remains pointless in four preseason games and so far hasn’t taken camp by storm, but then again, that’s the point of this time of year, right? To get one’s game rounded into shape. And to be fair, he’s arriving at a new team and a new system after playing the last two-plus seasons in L.A.
How would he rate his camp so far?
"It’s been OK," Penner said. "It’s tough coming to a new team and trying to get used to it and a new system. But I’ve been getting better. I’ve been getting more comfortable."
As the only member of both the 2007 and 2012 Cup champions from each side of the Freeway Faceoff rivalry, Penner is in a unique spot.
"It’s definitely an interesting feeling," he said. "Being able to win Cups in both places, first day going back into the Honda Center and walking through the halls that I used to walk as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed rookie, and then last night going back to Staples Center, it’s tough not to have all those memories come flushing back."
After signing a one-year, $2 million deal to leave the Kings for the rival Ducks this past summer, Penner was handed a golden opportunity when camp started from head coach Bruce Boudreau, the chance to be reunited on the top line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, a trio that was key in Anaheim’s 2007 Cup triumph. But Penner needs to show that he belongs there.
"He’ll never have a greater opportunity to play with players of the caliber of Ryan and Corey. It’s all up to him,” Boudreau told ESPN.com Wednesday morning. "We want it to work. But in the end, he’s going to have to be the one that produces and shows that he deserves to be on that line."
To Penner’s credit, the coach said, he’s constantly in communication with Boudreau, trying to get a feel for what’s going on with his new team.
"We talk so much about systems and everything. He asks a million questions,” Boudreau said. "He wants to get better. But what we need [from] him is to pick up a step, just a little; it’s not like he’s in midseason form."
What’s clear here is that it’s not quite written in stone that Penner will begin the regular season on the top line. Boudreau obviously wants to see a bit more before making that call.
"We want to get quicker as a team and he’s got to find that step to be a real valuable player," Boudreau said. "If he can find that step off the get-go, he’ll be very good. We think it’ll come, but it’s not where it needs to be at this stage."
In Tuesday’s preseason loss to the Kings, Penner skated with Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne, because Perry is banged up. That has limited a bit the ability of the top line to gel together.
"Unfortunately, we’ve had so many injuries in camp that the line hasn’t been able to stay together,” Boudreau said. "I haven’t been able to see the fruits of what they do really well."
Given a chance, Penner feels there’s an opportunity there to re-create what worked so well during Anaheim’s 2007 Cup run.
"Yeah, I had good chemistry with them back when I was here. Hopefully we can recapture that magic from ’07," Penner said.
And he understands what’s at stake here. Teams weren’t tripping over each other to sign him this past summer. After putting up two goals in 33 regular-season games with the Kings last season and three in 18 playoff games, Penner’s stock dipped. This is a year to re-establish himself as a dependable power forward in this league. And Penner takes it one step further.
"I don’t think even if I have the year that I want to have, and that people that are on my side want me to have, I don’t think that would be enough,” Penner said. "I have to do it over a couple of years. I look at this as one step and hopefully I can make it."
Few players in this league have been more polarizing than Penner, whose 6-foot-4, 242-pound frame and soft hands scream top-six power forward. His terrific play during both the Ducks’ 2007 Cup run and the Kings’ 2011 title campaign -- as well as his 32-goal campaign with the Oilers in 2009-10 -- reminded you of just how good he can be. But then came the dip last season, which opens the door for his harshest critics to come down on him.
Sometimes it’s important to remember the guy wasn’t drafted, signed out of college as a free agent by Anaheim in May 2004. So maybe some people have just expected too much out of him all along.
Regardless, Penner has heard it all.
"I find it pretty comical,” he said. "People seem to forget where I came from. I’ve had a pretty eventful career to say the least, both positively and negatively. What people say about me in the hockey world isn’t going to change how I feel about myself in the real world."
Another chapter in the Dustin Penner book beckons, but what’s in store?
"What a great story this could be," Boudreau said, "for that line to find that chemistry again like 2007; it could be a real positive story, no question. It’s in Dustin’s hands."