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Rejuvenated Taffe learns from hard lessons

by Lindsay Kramer

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins' center Jeff Taffe was brought up twice to play
for Pittsburgh in early preseason action.

Center Jeff Taffe was so good this preseason the Pittsburgh Penguins wanted to take two looks at him.

The team peeked at him early, sent him down, and in a highly unusual move, called him back up for some more preseason action. Unfortunately for Taffe, Pittsburgh also demoted him to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton again, but, hey, Taffe knows a compliment when he gets one.

“I’ve never seen that happen before,’’ Taffe, 26, said of the up-down-up-down. “It was fine with me. I think they just wanted to be sure about what they had in the future. I had to look at it in a positive way more than anything. If you go down to the American League with a bad attitude, it can be a nightmare.’’

Taffe (pronounced Tayf) speaks on that topic with first-hand knowledge. He readily pleads guilty to wasting a season of his career with a furrowed brow.

The season was 2005-06. Taffe, who played 59 games with Phoenix in 2003-04, started with the New York Rangers, but was sent down after two games. He contributed a decent 22 points in 36 games with Hartford, but then was traded back to the Phoenix organization. He dropped off heavily in San Antonio, coming up with just 11 points in 33 games.

“I didn’t have the right attitude. It set me back a year. That’s not what I want to be remembered for,’’ Taffe said. “I’d play a great game, then take a game or two off. I tried to turn everything around (last season). It was kind of one of those make-or-break seasons for me.’’

Put a big check in the “make’’ box. Taffe went 20-20-40 in 59 games for the Rampage and earned 17 games with the Coyotes. After signing with the Pittsburgh organization as a free agent, he’s continued swinging that pendulum the same way with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He started with seven goals and two assists in his first eight games there.

”It took me five years to figure out you can’t be a perimeter player. I wasn’t going to the tough places to score goals,’’ he said of the evolution of his offense the past two seasons. “I just try not to get too happy about (statistics). You never want to get too satisfied with your game.’’

Make or break -- Before he commits to an NHL organization, veteran defenseman Joel Bouchard wants to make sure he has something left to give.

Bouchard, 33, signed a tryout deal with Hamilton last week. According to him, parent club Montreal was willing to give him a two-way deal. So, too, was Columbus, with whom Bouchard skated in training camp.

But Bouchard wants to put it on the line one last time under a tryout scenario. That forces him to either prove he can be a full-time NHL defenseman -- while keeping himself available to all NHL teams at the same time -- or unlace the skates for good.

“If I’m good, teams are going to call. If not, it’s my fault,’’ Bouchard said. “I don’t think it’s fair for me to commit to one team. I think it’s still early in the ball game. This is my last chance to play in the NHL. I want to give it my best shot. At my age, I’m not an AHL player. I think I’m an NHL-caliber defenseman.’’

The well-traveled Bouchard, a native of Montreal, could be in line for a storybook ending if he plays OK for the farm club of his hometown team. He has appeared in 364 career NHL games with the Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. Overall, he’s recorded 22 goals, 53 assists and 264 penalty minutes.

But injuries and illnesses have made his career wind down rather quickly. Among his recent problems have been hamstring issues, a sports hernia, a broken scapula, meningitis, bronchitis and a salivary gland tumor.

He was limited to just four games with Bridgeport last season. Two seasons ago, he played 40 contests combined between Bridgeport and the Islanders. During the lockout season, he skated in just seven games with Hartford. In 2003-04, he got only 28 games worth of action with the Rangers.

Even in his short trial with the Blue Jackets this season, bad luck chased him down. He was struck with a bad virus, not only impacting his performance there, but also keeping him off the ice until last weekend.

“It’s been a battle. I’m not going to lie to you,’’ Bouchard said. “We all go through things. After every injury I’ve come back better. The problem has never been me playing bad. It happened in the past when people thought I was done. I came back and proved them wrong.’’

Looking ahead -- A couple hot hypothetical issues have kept AHL President Dave Andrews busy answering questions about the league’s future, both short-term and in the big picture.

First, the possible down-the-road plans. Andrews confirmed that the league has targeted Austin, Texas, as the most likely contender to someday become the AHL’s 30th team.

Andrews said he has met with potential owners, although he has received no official applications. Prospective owners could purchase a currently inactive franchise held by the Edmonton Oilers. A planned arena in Austin won’t be ready for a couple more years.

“We think it’s a good fit for us, with hockey in Houston and San Antonio,’’ Andrews said. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but looking at the markets out there, it’s one we’re interested in.’’

More immediately, Andrews played down the notion that the AHL would change its minimum age requirement to allow junior hockey phenom John Tavares to play in the league this season. The Toronto Star recently reported that the Maple Leafs were considering signing Tavares for the Marlies. Tavares, whose birthday was Sept. 20, is ineligible for next summer’s draft, which has a cut-off date of Sept. 15 for 18-year-olds. The AHL has the same deadline for its eligibility.

Andrews said a change in the age requirement would have to be approved by the Board of Governors, and added that the board hasn’t been approached with such a request.

“It’s the weirdest story. It seems to have legs of its own. I don’t know if we’ve had more media attention for any story over the last year,’’ Andrews said. “I don’t think there is anything to the story. It hasn’t come up. I don’t expect that it will.’’

Around the AHL -- Sixteen Syracuse players, including goalie Tomas Popperle, had at least one point in the Crunch’s 9-2 romp over Rochester on Oct. 27. Sixteen Syracuse players also recorded a plus-1 rating or better. … Joakim Lindstrom, who recorded 22 points in his final 14 games last season, was on a nine-game points streak for the Crunch this season. … With a goal and two assists against the IceHogs on Oct. 28, center Corey Locke (57-108-165) moved into a third-place tie with Peter Sarno (42-123-165) on the Bulldogs’ all-time points list. … Denis Hamel registered his sixth hat trick as a member of the Binghamton Senators, against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Oct. 27. The winger needs one assist to tie Jason Spezza’s franchise mark of 117. … The Marlies are 5-0-0-1 at home this season; they needed four months to earn their fifth victory, in their 22nd home game, in 2006-07. … Grand Rapids is off to its second-best road start in team history with a 5-0 record, behind only a 7-0 mark in 2004-05. Conversely, the Griffins are 0-3 at home for the first time in the franchise’s 12 seasons. … Albany goaltender Michael Leighton recorded back-to-back shutouts last weekend, against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey, just the third time in franchise history the River Rats have shut out their opponents in consecutive games. It was the first time in team history that one goaltender had shutouts in two consecutive games. Leighton also set a franchise mark for longest shutout streak by a goalie, 157:23 and counting. … Hershey’s 2-4-0-0 record makes October the Bears’ first sub-.500 month since going 1-6-0-1 in April 2005. ... Chicago posted a pair of wins over San Antonio last week, and now has gone 19 straight meetings without a regulation loss at home to the Rampage (17 wins, 1 tie, 1 OTL). ... Sizzling Philadelphia has eight wins so far this season. In 2006-07, the Phantoms did not win their eighth game until Nov. 24.

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