Penguins counting on Jeffrey

By A.J. Atchue || for

If you were to take a quick glance at Dustin Jeffrey’s statistics from his last two seasons of junior hockey, you couldn’t be blamed for pegging him as an offensive machine primed and ready to take his point-producing talents to the next level.

But a funny thing happened in Jeffrey’s development as he began his first full professional season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2008-09. His defensive play actually took on a greater importance, temporarily leaving offense on the back burner.

Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007 following a breakout 34-goal and 92-point season for Sault Ste. Marie (OHL), Jeffrey joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the spring of 2008 for a playoff run that culminated with a berth in the Calder Cup Finals.

Jeffrey and Luca Caputi, a fellow 2007 draftee who also arrived in Wilkes-Barre at the end of his junior season, both took regular postseason shifts for the Penguins.

Dan Bylsma, an assistant coach on that Wilkes-Barre team and currently the head coach in Pittsburgh, told Jeffrey that the playoff experience he gained that spring – playing high-intensity games at the most critical juncture of the year – would be invaluable.

“He said it was like we played a full year of hockey,” Jeffrey said. “When I came into my first full year, he approached it as if we weren’t first-year players because of that two-month experience at the hardest time of the year to play hockey.”

After being counted on to provide goals and points on a regular basis for Sault Ste. Marie, Jeffrey was used primarily in a checking-line role as an AHL rookie. He totaled 37 points in 63 games for the Penguins in 2008-09, a far cry from the gaudy numbers of his last two junior years.

However, far from a knock on Jeffrey, the different role actually served as a compliment to the 21-year-old’s well-rounded abilities.

“The staple of his game is solid two-way play,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Todd Reirden, who was elevated from assistant coach upon Bylsma’s promotion to Pittsburgh last February. “It always comes back to his defense. He has great reads and great feel for the game to be able to play well in the ‘D’ zone.”

A native of Sarnia, Ont., Jeffrey logged heavy minutes as one of the Penguins’ top penalty killers in 2008-09 and was often tabbed by Reirden to center a “shut-down” line, which received the majority of its ice time against the opponent’s top offensive unit.

“(The experience) was a little different than what I was mostly playing during my last couple years in juniors,” said Jeffrey. “But my ability to adapt and play different positions and still be effective in different situations has been key.”

Just after Christmas of his rookie year, Jeffrey earned one of the best presents a young hockey player can receive, his first NHL recall to Pittsburgh. He scored his first career NHL goal in Boston on New Year’s Day 2009, with former Wilkes-Barre teammates Alex Goligoski and Tim Wallace assisting on the milestone tally.

And after Wilkes-Barre/Scranton suffered a second-round ouster in the 2009 Calder Cup Playoffs, Jeffrey and four teammates rejoined Pittsburgh as “black aces” for the NHL Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship run.

“We traveled with the team, practiced with the team, and they really made us feel like a part of the whole Stanley Cup experience,” Jeffrey said.

During the offseason, the AHL Penguins lost four of their top five scorers from the previous year, a veteran group that had combined for more than 250 points during the 2008-09 campaign.

With that much turnover at key positions, the coaching staff challenged Jeffrey and other young players such as Caputi, Nick Johnson and Mark Letestu to alter their roles and elevate their offensive games heading into 2009-10.

The returns thus far have been encouraging.

Spending much of his time centering Wilkes-Barre’s top line with Johnson and Letestu, Jeffrey leads the Penguins in scoring and has averaged a point per game this season, registering 47 points (14-33-47) in 47 contests and earning a spot in last month’s AHL All-Star Classic.

With 30 games still to play, he has already topped his rookie-year totals in goals, assists and points.

“I think it’s just more opportunity,” Jeffrey said of his increased production. “When you have a little bit more free rein and the coaches give you a little more room to use your offensive instincts, it makes it a little bit easier to create offense.”

“We count on him for offense more now,” Reirden said. “He’s definitely one of our go-to guys in that area, and I don’t think there’s another forward that plays more on our team than he does. He’s always been our top penalty killer, but now he’s been able to add some more power play time.”

Reirden noted that many young players come out of juniors with strong offensive abilities but glaring inadequacies in the defensive zone. For Jeffrey, it was almost the opposite.

“Defense really was his calling card,” Reirden said. “Most guys come in and they expect to score at the same rate as in juniors, and their game often heads south because they can’t produce those same numbers. He came in, he played the penalty kill. And by 10 games in, he was our match-up guy against other teams’ top lines.”

In an organization that features Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal as Pittsburgh’s top three centers, it’s also more important than ever for a guy like Jeffrey to play more than one position.

To that end, he has suited up as a wing on a handful of occasions this year in addition to his main duties at center.

“You have to make yourself versatile, that you can be used in different situations, so you’re not thought of just as a center,” Jeffrey said. “Being shifted to the wing this year has shown my versatility, and if I can keep improving on my penalty killing and power play, being a winger and a center, hopefully it shows that I can be shifted around (in Pittsburgh), and I can earn a spot that way.”

Reirden, who has watched Jeffrey’s game and his versatility develop over the last two years, is optimistic about his chances.

“He’s definitely on the right path here, and we feel really good about his future,” he said.