Versatile Jeffrey still not a regular with Penguins
September 18, 2013 12:00 PM
Dustin Jeffrey: The forward fills several roles but still hasn't found his niche.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins are down to 25 forwards on their major-league roster.
Some are more skilled than Dustin Jeffrey. Others are bigger. And tougher.
But only one, Jussi Jokinen, might be more versatile and adaptable than Jeffrey. And not by much.
Not unless Jokinen mastered the finer points of tending goal over the offseason.
Need a guy to fill in on either wing on one of the top two lines? Jeffrey can. Seeking a center to handle bottom-six duties? Jeffrey.
Same is true, for that matter, if there's a demand for a top-six center or an opening on one of the wings on the third or fourth line.
He also is sufficiently talented to fit in on a power play, and defensively responsible enough to be an effective penalty-killer.
Pick almost any duty -- OK, aside from heavyweight enforcer -- that could be part of a forward's job description, and Jeffrey likely has done it at some point. Most likely, pretty well.
His ability to fill so many niches capably is widely regarded as his greatest asset, and with good reason, because he is available to take on any job that might come open up front.
At the same time, Jeffrey's versatility might be the greatest impediment to him becoming an every-game player in the NHL. He has spent at least part of each of the past five seasons with the Penguins, but never has dressed more than 26 times in any of them.
One possible explanation: Learning to handle so many different jobs has prevented him from specializing in any of them, the way most players do.
No less an authority than Jeffrey believes that could be the case.
"[Versatility] helped me get here, for the fact that it didn't matter who was getting hurt or what injury or suspension happened, [because] I was able to be plugged into that role," he said Tuesday.
"But, when you come into a camp like this, and, when you look at it on paper, there are two winger spots open ... you play wing, but you also play center, you don't have that defined ability to go in there and compete for that exact spot."
Jeffrey made a conscious decision to diversify his game after the Penguins claimed him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft.
Their first-round choices the previous three years had been Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal, and that made it clear to Jeffrey the Penguins wouldn't be looking for a lot of help down the middle.
"My junior coach at the time looked at me and said, 'Hey, it's going to be a tough time, cracking it as a center,' " Jeffrey said.
Still, he played primarily in the middle after breaking in with the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre in 2008, but eventually found himself working on the wings, too.
"You take your direction from the coaching staff," Jeffrey said. "So, if they want you to play center, you play center. If they want you to play wing, you play wing."
Exactly where coach Dan Bylsma envisions him playing in 2013-14 isn't clear, and perhaps hasn't been determined. He skated between Tanner Glass and Chuck Kobasew in the exhibition opener, a 5-4 overtime loss Sunday in Columbus. Bylsma said that Jeffrey "had a very good game" against the Blue Jackets.
Hard to argue, given that Jeffrey had a goal and an assist and accumulated five shots while logging 17 minutes, 55 seconds of ice time. A bit less than half of that work came at even-strength, the rest on the power play and penalty-killing units.
Jeffrey was a restricted free agent after last season, but the Penguins re-signed him to a one-year contract worth $625,000, regardless of whether he plays in the NHL or not.
Kobasew, in camp on a tryout, has been impressive and, if he ends up with a contract, it's conceivable he could take Jeffrey's spot on the NHL roster.
Jeffrey is adamant that he wants to remain with the Penguins, although landing steady work in the NHL appears to be his top priority.
"Being 25 years old, you're starting to get to that point where you want to play every night," he said. "Playing 20 games a year or 25 games a year isn't what I want.
"I'm confident I can play every night in this league."