EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The message was crystal clear on Tuesday morning.
Following the team's first practice since returning from a season-long six-game road trip, Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter was asked what Dustin Penner needed to demonstrate to get back into the lineup heading into Thursday's game against the visiting Phoenix Coyotes. The slumping left wing, the fourth-highest paid player on the team this season at $4.25 million, was a healthy scratch the last two games.
"Work your (butt) off, then you get a chance to play again," Sutter said. "If you don't, you don't."
Penner, acquired at last season's trade deadline in the hopes he would provide more scoring depth, has produced just five goals in 43 games this season and seven in 62 regular-season games since arriving from Edmonton.
He scored a goal on a hard shot from the slot in a 3-1 victory last week in Tampa Bay, then cruised through the first two periods of a 3-1 loss two days later against the Florida Panthers, earning a seat on the bench for most of the final period.
He then sat in the press box during a 2-1 overtime loss Saturday against the New York Islanders and Sunday in a 4-2 victory against the Dallas Stars. All the while, two call-ups from the American Hockey League, Jordan Nolan and Dwight King, were making their season debuts on the second line, each scoring a goal in the victory in Dallas.
Asked if Penner is back to square one when it comes to playing time, Sutter answered, "When you're told to work your (butt) off, that is square one."
Penner has gone down this road before during his mercurial seven-year career. He won a Stanley Cup title with the Ducks in his first full season in the NHL in 2006-07. He has a 30-goal season to his credit while playing with Edmonton in 2009-10.
But then there was the start of the 2008-09 season, when he was benched for two games for exhibiting a lack of fitness and competitiveness. That prompted an even more pointed critique from then-coach Craig MacTavish.
"When we signed Dustin we thought he'd be a top two-line player," MacTavish told the Edmonton Journal at the time. "We thought the contract ($4.25 million average for five years) was a starting point for him but he views it as a finish line. I can't watch it, certainly not for another 2½ years."
Penner responded by scoring in his first game back and added five more goals over the next 11 games. But the Oilers still didn't stick with him, even after he came back with a 32-goal season the following year. He was dealt to the Kings last February for a minor league defenseman and a conditional draft pick.
Penner missed the first two games this season with a groin injury, missed nine more from Nov. 12 to Dec. 1 with a hand injury, then came his most perplexing injury, the onset of back spasms while eating pancakes the morning of a game Jan. 7 against Columbus, a 1-0 loss by the Kings.
Dan Arritt covers the NHL for ESPNLosAngeles.com.