It was a Thursday night and I had to work the next day, as did the rest of us, but just like old times (and this being PK – PreKids) we roared through our beers pretty quick. While the wiser amongst us were sated our buddy from away and myself were not and our host, recognizing an opportunity, decided that now was a good time to get rid of a couple of bottles of homemade white wine that his father had gifted to him. Even in our state we recognized pretty quickly that we were drinking something somewhere between battery acid and high octane gasoline (leaded) but being pretty senseless, as noted before, we managed to help a brother and clean him out.
Jumped on the subway and swayed back and forth as it zoomed south a few stops, hit St. Clair station and stumbled out into the pouring rain for the short walk back to our apartment. It was maybe a ten minute walk, if that, right through a very tony neighbourhood but like JF Jacques trying to score his first NHL goal I soon began to find what seemed inevitable (walk west for ten minutes, fumble with key, fall into bed) was actually quite impossible. I was soaked to the skin in a moment and as I tried to plant one foot before the other in the fog before my eyes and in my mind, I decided that what I might need to do is to take a short nap.
And so I laid down right on someone’s front lawn, right beside the sidewalk, a house worth millions of dollars I am sure, laying back, mouth agape, likely I would have drowned like the proverbial turkey staring up into the storm or more likely, ended up in a cell overnight, drying out. Luckily for me I wasn’t there long when someone shook me gently and asked me if I was alright.
Now I am not the sharpest dresser. In fact one time whilst sitting against a wall on Bloor Street waiting for a pal to come by and pick me up a passerby actually flipped me a loonie. Having said that I’m pretty obviously not homeless on most days and so I must have looked not like a guy down on his luck but really what I was, a young guy who was pretty full. So I staggered to my feet and said I was walking home and when he found out where I lived he walked me to my apartment building (even shielding me under his umbrella, one thing I never carry, along with a cell phone and a wristwatch) and made sure I got in the door ok.
Nice fellow, that.
Now its pretty clear that if Dustin Penner were walking home in a rainstorm and found Craig MacTavish passed out he would probably roll him into a ditch and hold him down and we all know that the feeling is most definitely mutual.
There have been many pleasant surprises so far this season. Ladislav Smid has been wonderful and while the coaching change (and just plain old experience) may have been a factor for him, isn’t it interesting to note that this is the second straight year that a young defenceman has taken a leap while getting major minutes with Lubo Visnovsky. This is a simplification of course as Grebeshkov had come on pretty well near the end of his first season with the Oilers and Smid has not been exclusively partnered with Lubo but if and when Theo Peckham or Taylor Chorney get full time employment in the NHL it might be an idea to partner them with the little Slovak waterbug.
And there is Gilbert Brule who is now at a PPG pace and who scored two goals and hit a post on Friday night, all while playing with Jacques and Stone. Of course they were also on for a GA where they were all running around like Matt Greene and Marc Andre Bergeron in spring 2006 but I think that would be expected at times. In any case Brule has had a pretty positive impact and I am pretty sure that nobody saw that coming. I certainly did not.
And Taylor Chorney has looked pretty reasonable by my eye as a fillin for the injured veterans on top of everything.
But nobody has looked as good or has been as big of a surprise as Dustin Penner.
Now it is only seven games in and seven games doesn’t suddenly make this an amazing signing as someone commented over one the game day thread on Friday night (where are all of those guys who slagged the Penner signing now was the question). Penner has always left us wanting more and even his defenders who pointed out his good underlying numbers could not defend his conditioning, his lack of urgency, his, well, laziness. If you’re making truckloads of money then showing up at camp fat and getting pushed off the puck by smaller men and essentially being a disinterested spectator for two years is completely unacceptable and the fact is that if this type of player was able to impact the underlying numbers in a positive manner as demonstrated by Derek Zona repeatedly then its all the more maddening.
I don’t think anyone expects Penner to be a vicious killer, its not in his nature, although a few more throwdowns like what he laid on Regher on opening night would certainly be welcome. But the expectation is that he should drive the net and be impossible to handle down low and that a man his size with those hands should be a guy who can be a gamebreaker, much like he was Friday night. The goal on the O’Sullivan pass was a gimme (and speaking of players little O’Sullivan is a beauty) but the play on his second goal was sublime, the rush out of his own end and the hard crossice pass to Gagner and then roaring to the net, pass his check (who could not have handled him anyway) and then the finish on the return pass (note that he roofed it too – the guy knows what to do in close) had me off the couch, cock in hand, shouting with delight.
Penner obviously came into camp determined to prove something which is wonderful but disappointing at the same time – he obviously had it in him these past two years and for whatever reason chose not to tap it. The tendency is to blame MacTavish for all of this mess and while I was no fan of the old coach last season I don’t think that relationship would have gone south if the big man had shown up from day one in the condition he is in now. MacT was always of the mind that Penner could and should be a bigger factor and it must really grate his tit to see the early returns under the new regime for his old nemesis.
Penner’s role is up in the air now, one wonders if he will be asked to kickstart the struggling duo on the top line or whether he will be expected to carry a soft minutes trio with a couple of the kids. Hard to say but he has the coach’s confidence and if he can keep it up then this club is going to look a lot better as it hits the dog days of the season, much more so than if he were a bored and listless passenger as he was so many times over the last two years. Still a long way to go but a big winger who can put the puck in the net is what this club needs more than anything, I would say, and who knew that the guy that they were looking for would be under their nose all of this time.