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Prospect Watch: Dustin Jeffrey

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
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On a team with high-profile superstars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury among the supreme talents which take the ice nightly for the Penguins, it doesn’t take an economics major to realize the Penguins must save payroll elsewhere to fit a competent roster under the salary threshold.

As a result, popular role players such as Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts and Rob Scuderi have been allowed to leave in recent years. One way to keep the bottom of your roster strong is by drafting and developing players of this ilk from within, something the Penguins hope they have done with 2007 sixth-round draft pick Dustin Jeffrey, who with a little more refinement to his game could soon find himself in full-time employment in Pittsburgh.

Jeffrey, 21, spent a majority of his first season in professional hockey with the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last year, where he contributed 37 points (11G-26A) in 63 games. His play earned him a 14-game trial in Pittsburgh where he added three points (1G-2A) and looked as though he belonged at the sport’s highest level.

Such productivity in the National Hockey League combined with a breakout performance for WBS with 10 points (5G-5A) in 12 postseason contests made Jeffrey a strong candidate to make the parent club at the outset of camp.

With the Penguins electing to go with a near-minimum roster at the dawn of the year Jeffrey instead found himself spending a second season in Northeast Pennsylvania. He has not pouted at the demotion, instead leading the Baby Penguins in scoring with 10 points (1G-9A) through 12 games.

“Obviously you want to start out with the (big club) but when you get sent down they give you things to work on so that you can take that next step and be a full-time NHL player,” Jeffrey said. “It’s stuff that I have worked on. That I have gotten off to the start I have points-wise has been really nice but there are still things in my game I need to work on.”

Because he has often been counted on during a junior career which saw him rank among the league leaders in the Ontario Hockey League with 97 points (38G-59A) in 56 games during his final season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and during his one-plus season with WBS to produce offensively, Jeffrey hasn’t had the chance to focus on smaller facets of the game, such as his ability to retrieve and protect the puck in high-traffic areas and becoming an effective penalty killer, detail work which will net him full-time employment with the big club.

“When I had my time up (in Pittsburgh) last year I played well but I think to play in the role they need me to play with them I need to be more physical on a consistent basis. I have to get stronger in other areas in the game like faceoffs and puck battles in the zone and protecting the puck – things along those lines.

“I think in puck battles, strength is one thing but if you can keep your feet moving and move out of the corners it is a lot harder to check you. I think that is a big thing, just working out and getting stronger to become more of a professional.”

In his second full-time campaign with the Baby Penguins Jeffrey has taken on even more responsibilities as he takes on more of a leadership role with the team.

Continuing what WBS head coach Todd Reirden experimented with during the 2009 Calder Cup playoffs, Jeffrey has found himself at the point during power plays. He has also seen his penalty-kill time increase, as his only goal came while the team was down by a skater.

As one of the main sources of offense for the Baby Penguins, the 6-foo-1, 205-pound Jeffrey’s role differs significantly from the one he will one day fill on the big-league depth chart. Jeffrey says balancing what his team expects from him now with what will be expected in the future can be tough, but if he does not focus mentally and get the job done, there will be no future in Pittsburgh for the gifted center.

“Playing more top-line minutes and being counted on for points is one thing. They have been pretty straight forward with me and it is pretty obvious with the three centers they have there in Pittsburgh that the roles needed are someone who can bring energy and contribute on the penalty kill and on the forecheck.

“I think it’s something that you have to adjust to. While I am here this is the role they need me to play here so it’s something you just have to get used to.”

Much like the parent club, WBS has had to juggle the forward ranks quite a bit during the early season as promotions to Pittsburgh has forced Reirden to shake the troops up on many occasions.

While some of his teammates have struggled to find the score sheet, producing has not been a problem for Jeffrey despite recently being switched from winger on a high-scoring line with Ryan Bayda and Mark Letestu to centering a trio which includes Konstantin Pushkarev and Tim Wallace flanking him along the wings.

But Jeffrey would rather focus on the positive to playing so many low-scoring games through the season’s first month.

“We are still winning hockey games so it is not something we are panicking about because we are finding ways to win games. As the end of the year comes you are going to have to learn to win the one-goal games. I think that is what we are doing right now.”

As long as Dustin Jeffrey keeps producing like he has over the first couple weeks of the season, the organization will reward his steady play with a promotion to Pittsburgh when the correct opportunity arises. Then it will be Jeffrey’s job to prove his worthy of full-time NHL duty.
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