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Penner working hard to develop his game

His path to professional hockey may have been unusual, but Cincinnati Mighty Ducks left wing Dustin Penner has worked hard to achieve success every step of the way.

Growing up in Winkler, Man., Penner was cut from the majority of the teams he tried out for, sometimes more than once. Despite the disappointments, his love of the game kept him going and he played high school hockey in his hometown before walking onto the hockey team at Minot State University-Bottineau, a junior college in North Dakota.

In 2002, Penner attended a development camp in Saskatoon where he caught the attention of University of Maine assistant coach Grant Standbrook. After a red-shirt season at Maine, Penner played in 43 games in 2003-04, earning 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists). He was the recipient of the Jack Semler Award, which is given annually to the team’s most improved player.

Following an appearance in the Frozen Four, Penner was heavily recruited by several NHL teams, but eventually signed an entry level contract with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

“It’s probably helped me a lot more than some of the players who have grown up making every team, being the best player on every team they played for,” said Penner.

The challenges he has faced have helped him learn how to best deal with adversity and setbacks, such as not getting as much playing time, or being sat out. It has also helped him better adapt to and cope with varying situations and channel them to positive energy.

The journey has not ended as Penner works his way through his first professional season. After joining the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Penner still had to develop his game and adjust to a higher level of hockey.

Because his background did not afford him much opportunity to play higher level hockey, Penner faced a much steeper learning curve than some of his peers who had more experience and his progression is contingent on playing hockey as much as possible and gaining experience at this level.

“I started out not knowing where I fit in the scheme of things and as the season went on I’ve seen where I fit in and how I can succeed at this level,” said Penner. “It’s quite similar to the season at Maine; I started off slow much like here and then found my calling, so to speak, and became a better player.”

In order to discover his role on this team, Penner has spent a lot of time working with Mighty Ducks assistant coach Dan Bylsma. According to Bylsma, one of Penner’s strengths this season has been his willingness to learn and to ask questions in order to develop his game and improve his effectiveness and consistency on ice.

To do this, Penner and Bylsma worked on all parts of the game, including skating, stick handling and passing.

They also worked on his play around the net and in the corners, working on various tricks of the trade to use his size and body to his advantage instead of simply trying to stickhandle the puck across the ice.

Finally, the duo worked on the mental aspect of the game and on being more physical and aggressive on the ice. Because of his size, Penner had previously been able to play at any pace and get along. However, to be effective at this level he had to learn to be alert and on his game every night.

“As the year has gone on, especially after the first 25 games, you really saw him improve and be effective in games,” said Bylsma. “When he is physical, when he is in the corners with the puck and when he is in front of the net, he can really command the game and be a commanding presence.”

The 23-year-old Penner has played in 74 games for the Ducks this season, earning nine goals and 17 assists for a total of 26 points. He currently leads club rookies in goals (9), assists (17), points (26), powerplay goals (4) and shots (140).