By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
|Jeff Taffe knows the Panthers well, at least some of them having won a NCAA championship with Keith Ballard and Jordan Leopold in Minnesota.
There will come a time, Jeff Taffe said recently, when he’ll try to secure a photograph of Sidney Crosby handing him the Stanley Cup after the Penguins thrilling Game 7 victory June 12 at Joe Louis Arena.
But Taffe’s focus these days isn’t looking back on his time with Pittsburgh, Phoenix or the Rangers. After playing parts of six seasons in the NHL – 153 games, to be exact – Taffe is looking at his recent signing with the Panthers as his chance to prove himself as an every-day NHL player.
“I want to go there and prove I can play every night,” said the 28-year-old forward, who is searching for success in the NHL after being named ‘Mr. Hockey’ in Minnesota and winning an NCAA championship in 2002 with the Golden Gophers. “Within the last few years I’ve realized how I have to play every night on a consistent basis…maybe it just took me a little longer than other people. I think my first few years in the league; I really didn’t understand what it took. I didn’t really know my role.”
Taffe, a point-a-game player for the Penguins’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season (75 points, 74 games), came into the NHL as a celebrated hockey player from Minnesota. He was given the prestigious honor of ‘Mr. Hockey’ in Minnesota after a high school career that climaxed with 90 points (35 goals) in 28 games during his senior season and 214 points in 81 games at Hastings High School.
After being selected in the first-round (30th overall) of the 2000 Entry Draft by the Blues – after having his three-year career at the University of Minnesota climax with a national championship alongside fellow Panthers Keith Ballard and Jordan Leopold – Taffe assumed the next logical step was success in the NHL.
While he played 59 games with the Coyotes in 2003-04 and 45 with the Penguins in 2006-07, Taffe is ready to prove himself in South Florida as an NHL regular, a chance he wasn’t going to get in Pittsburgh where he was behind centers Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
The 6-3, 207-pound Taffe is open when discussing his early success and how it might have affected his professional career.
“I was one of the better players growing up in bantams, in high school, and while I struggled a little my first year or two in college, I had a very successful third year and even had a lot of success in the two world junior tournaments I played,” he said. “When you turn pro you just think everything is going to be handed to you. So I thought, ‘Oh, it’s just a natural progression and you’ll be great at the next level, too.’ But, obviously, it gets harder.”
Taffe admits when he was reassigned by the Coyotes in 2003-04 to their AHL affiliate in Springfield he took it as “the worst thing that could happen to me and went in with a bad attitude, and I think that reflects a lot in how your game is played.”
But within the last few years, Taffe reflected, he’s realized what it takes to become an NHL regular. “I work out with a few other NHL guys here in Arizona,” he said. “Derek Morris is here, Peter Mueller and Nikolai Khabibulin and we’re training hard every day. I think that’s what it comes down to. I think I’m starting to grow into my body as I grow older. I’m starting to feel better. When I used to be back in Minnesota trying to do things on my own, there’s always ways to take short cuts during the summer if you’re trying to do it on your own. I kind of let myself off the hook and I think it reflected in the way I played, too.”
“I don’t think I was a terrible player, but I think I could have played maybe a little harder,” Taffe added. “If I’d done some things differently, (maybe) I would have stuck. But it shows a lot that I realized it and took actions for the mistakes I made in the past and try to make up for them.”
Taffe, who has spoken in recent weeks to former Gopher teammates and current Panther ‘mates Ballard and Leopold, said he’ll take a lot from his two years in Pittsburgh, including his skate with the Stanley Cup.
One of six players on the Penguins ‘taxi squad’ during the Stanley Cup Finals, Taffe and the others were encouraged by team chairman and co-owner Mario Lemieux to hoist the Cup despite sitting during the playoffs.
“It was kind of a neat deal,” Taffe recalled. “They wanted to make everyone a part of the team, and it was a big thing for the guys who were called up. When it was being passed around, Mario came up to me and said, ‘I want everybody to grab it. It doesn’t matter if you played a game in the Finals or a game in the playoffs. We’re a team here.’ He kind of forced it upon everybody. I remember Sidney handing it off to me, so I’m going to look for a picture of that one day.”
For now, however, Taffe is only interested in cracking the Panthers lineup come the season opener against the Blackhawks in Finland.