Penguins' Jeffrey slowly regains a solid role
Contracts are guaranteed in the NHL.
Lineup spots are not.
If, by any chance, Dustin Jeffrey wasn't aware of that distinction a year ago, he certainly is now.
Before then-Philadelphia forward Jeff Carter fell on Jeffrey's right knee March 24, 2011, causing Jeffrey's anterior cruciate ligament to tear, Jeffrey was viewed as one of the Penguins' most promising young forwards, a guy who could play anywhere up front, and do it in any situation.
In the wake of that injury, which had to be surgically repaired, Jeffrey was unable to reclaim a meaningful place in the team's plans, or even a steady spot in the lineup.
That, it seems, might be about to change.
For while Jeffrey dare not take anything for granted in the brief training camp that precedes the regular-season opener Saturday in Philadelphia, it sounds as if he'll be doing more than simply taking up a spot in the annual team photo.
"He's one of those guys who, from a versatility standpoint, is a guy we're going to rely on this season," assistant coach Tony Granato said.
"It's going to be one of those years where [depth] is going to be really important, and a guy who can play power play, the penalty-kill, left wing, center, play up and down your lineup ... it's important to have a guy like that."
Jeffrey skated Monday on a line with Jayson Megna and Beau Bennett at practice at Consol Energy Center.
Like so many players without a clearly defined niche -- or, in some cases, a spot on the major league depth chart -- there's only so much Jeffrey realistically can hope to accomplish during a compressed training camp.
There figure to be few, if any, guys who seize a niche significantly different than the one envisioned for them a week ago, because there won't be many opportunities to make an impression on the decision-makers.
"Obviously, with no exhibition games, not a whole lot's going to [change]," Granato said. "What we're planning on doing, as far as the lineup goes, is pretty much what it's going to have to be.
"There's no room for guys to move up and down [the depth chart] without exhibition games."
At least Jeffrey will be involved in this camp. He wasn't able to do that before the 2011-12 season because he was recovering from his operation.
He made his debut Oct. 20 and played six games before being sent to the Penguins minor league team in Wilkes-Barre for a brief conditioning stint.
Turned out he wasn't ready for the rigors of playing, though, and he didn't get into a game again until nearly mid-January. Then promptly dressed for 18 in a row.
After that run, Jeffrey became little more than an afterthought, appearing in only two of the final 23 games.
"Missing training camp kind of got him behind the eight ball," Granato said. "He played some good hockey, but with the way the lineup was, he didn't get a whole lot of consistent minutes and I think that was part of it."
Jeffrey said he was completely over his operation as the season was winding down, but conceded that he had returned to work a bit early the first time.
"When I first came back [in Wilkes-Barre], I think it was early," he said. "Obviously, it looked that way, as well, and I sat out for another month and a half.
"I thought I put a couple of stretches of good games together, and then right before I didn't play for the rest of the year, I had a couple of bad games in a row."
Jeffrey was convinced that, after all that downtime last season, he couldn't afford to stay idle during the NHL lockout, so he signed with a Croatian team, Medvescak Zagreb, that competes in Austria's top league.
"I think it was a really smart decision for me to play hockey [during the lockout]," he said. "Obviously, last year, I didn't play a lot of games and toward the end of the year, I didn't play at all."
That apparently will change in the weeks ahead. Based on Granato's assessment, Jeffrey looks to be in a position where he would have to play his way out of a job, not battle his way into one.
"He's certainly a solid NHL player," Granato said. "I think he can be a big part of our team."
In the short term, Jeffrey might be content just to be an active part of it.
"Obviously, you want to play," he said. "There's not a worse feeling than taking warm-ups and not playing. Or just not playing in general."
First Published January 15, 2013 12:00 am