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Taffe continues to lead by example

by Mike Peck || AHL On The Beat Archive

How good has Jeff Taffe been lately?

Well, he recently pieced together the longest scoring streak in the American Hockey League this season and tied a Rockford IceHogs franchise record by marking a point in 15 straight games.

During the month of February, Taffe had a point in each of the 13 games he played in, totaling 20 points, the most in the AHL. Alone, the center figured in on 51 percent of Rockford’s 39 goals in February.

But it’s not just Taffe’s production that has been so valuable to the IceHogs this season. He has provided leadership and has set a solid example for the young players on and off the ice.

“Jeff is a guy who leads by example, with his play on the ice he’s a productive offensive player, but he’s also responsible defensively,” said IceHogs head coach Bill Peters. “He’s not the loudest guy in the dressing room or off the ice. He comes to work every day and he’s a pure professional. He’s here early, stays late and gets his work in. And when the game starts he shows up and competes hard. That’s what you want in your veteran players.”

At times this season Rockford has dressed up to 11 rookies in a game. Some good veteran presence in the lineup has been crucial in Rockford’s lineup and Taffe has been one of the players that have helped provide this.

The Hastings, Minn., native also has the knack to make everyone around him better. Whomever Peters paired up with Taffe and Ryan Potulny (who was dealt to the Ottawa Senators at the National Hockey League trade deadline) excelled on Rockford’s top line.

“When I was younger I relied on other guys to do the dirty work or go in the corner and get the puck,” said Taffe. “But that’s not how the game works and you’re only going to get back what you put in.

“I try to help out as much as I can on both sides of the puck, offensively and defensively. I learned the hard way that the better you play defensively the more opportunities you’re going to get in the other end to create offense.”

That’s the kind of leading by example that has turned Taffe into such a valuable commodity to the IceHogs. Not that the ninth-year forward isn’t trying to get back to the NHL.

The 2010-11 season is Taffe’s first in the Chicago Blackhawks organization and so far he has played just one contest with the big club. That might have gotten him down earlier in his career, but he has now learned to not stress the uncontrollables.

“When I was younger I thought a few times that I deserved to be called up or wondered why I was sitting out or not playing as much,” said Taffe. “I think if you just come to the rink with a positive attitude and work hard every day, things will work out well for yourself.”

Just about every team in the AHL has a veteran or two like Taffe on their roster. The guy who has played some in the NHL, a quality NHL call-up guy waiting in the wings, but a good influence on the other players in the locker room.

Over the past three seasons Rockford had the likes of Tim Brent and Mark Cullen on their roster — older players that were quality leaders in the dressing room and hard workers on and off the ice.

It’s not easy, however, snagging these types of players in the offseason. In the prime of their careers, vets aren’t just looking for playing time in the AHL, but for the quickest route back into the NHL.

“It’s our job as an organization in Chicago to make sure that we’re going out and selecting not only good veteran players with good character, but ones that can be a recall and contribute in Chicago,” said Blackhawks general manager of minor league affiliations Mark Bernard. “But they have to be guys that come down and teach our young players how to be good professional athletes.

“It’s hard in the summer because they look at point of destination and know they might start in the AHL but they look for the best opportunity to get them to the NHL. We’ve been very lucky and very fortunate that we’ve been able to surround our youngsters in Rockford with good players like Jeff Taffe.”

For most prospects that don’t establish themselves in the NHL by the time their entry-level contract comes to an end, the word “stability” usually gets removed from their vocabulary.

Taffe was originally drafted by the St. Louis Blues, 30th overall, in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. The forward never set foot in the Blues organization. After spending most of his first five professional seasons in the Phoenix Coyotes organization, Taffe has played for three different ones over the past four years.

“You always look for a little stability in your life,” replied Taffe about his recent travels. “It’s always nice to be around the same group of guys and the same organization. But it’s not the way it works when you get older and it’s tough. I think the older you get there is always some teams that want you to come and help out their organization in one aspect or another.”

Before getting traded to the Blackhawks organization for Marty Reasoner on July 22, 2010, Taffe also made stops in the NHL with Florida, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers. His AHL resume includes Rochester, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, San Antonio, Hartford, Utah and Springfield.

The impact off the ice has been just as significant as on it for Taffe in Rockford. If you’re looking for a player who shows up early, works late and plays hard, then Taffe is your player. The true definition of a lead-by-example player.

“You need all types of guys, you have 22, 23 players on your team,” said Peters. “You need your rah-rah energy guys, you need some guys that are just more lead by example and quiet. The thing is, with those quiet guys who leads by example is that they have a lot of currency in the locker room, when they do speak everyone listens because they know they’re not going to say something out of line or something that’s unnecessary. When they do speak, it goes a long way and they are able to back up their words with their actions.”

As his career moves on Taffe, and veterans alike, must contend for roster spots with younger players in a sport that seems to be growing younger by the year.

Rockford’s roster alone has featured up to nine different players 21 years of age or younger this year. The challenge isn’t necessarily finding a suitor to play for, but staying ahead of younger prospects trying to break into the NHL.

“It’s unbelievable how young professional hockey is,” said Taffe. “I think it starts with the NHL. They’re bringing up a lot of young guys and just throwing them in there. It’s a fast game and that’s the biggest change in the NHL. It’s trickling down to the American League. You see a lot of guys playing college hockey and juniors, but they want them to come out and play 80 games in the AHL and get used to grind and to see what it’s really like to play professional hockey.”

He also knows that it wasn’t long ago that he was the young prospect looking to climb the depth charts and work his way into the NHL.

Said Taffe, “I was in the same boat and I definitely got some more opportunities than some of the other guys. There is nothing you can do or think about why you’re not getting called up at a certain time. I find myself being a more versatile player and I think I can fit different roles. It’s one of those things that if you begin to lose sleep over it you’ll bring yourself and your game down.

“It’s fun being around these young guys. They bring a lot to the rink everyday.”

Eight years in, Taffe still has the drive to become an everyday NHL player. He’s won an NCAA championship at the University of Minnesota, been a part of a deep Calder Cup run with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and a Stanley Cup run with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Through it all, Taffe has learned not to worry about the mind games and uncertainties that surround professional hockey players.

“You see some guys making it when they are a little further into their career,” said Taffe about another crack at the NHL. “It’s tough, but all you have to do is find that one person who likes you and that goes a long ways. So you never know. I’m still kind of looking over the next few years and hopefully get back (to the NHL) and if doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. But I think everyone strives to play at the highest level.

“It’s been weird, some years there has been some back and forth and a lot of travel to the NHL. And then there are years like this year where there was only one game. That’s part of it. I’ve had a good time and you always meet some good people. If you can teach these guys something and at the end of the day when they are a few years down the road and they can say I was a good player and teammate that goes a long ways with me.”