Lacing Up: The Jaded Jeffrey
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Matt Paul: I can hardly contain myself, Josh! By the time this conversation reaches FF for reader consumption, we’ll be less than a week from the start of the season. There’s so much to discuss and so little time to discuss it — but that’s good news, considering we’ve spent the last six months with so little to discuss and so much time to discuss it. This change of pace is quite nice.
Anyway, throughout the craziness of last week, we’ve heard, read, and participated in a lot of discussion about the vacant top-line winger role. I think every player on the Penguins’ roster,including Brooks Orpik (or maybe not), has been vetted by the fans and media for this spot. But there’s one guy that repeatedly gets overlooked. Where’s Dustin Jeffrey?
How is it that just two years ago many were viewing the kid as a possible top-six winger based on his impressive production down the stretch, and now he’s being shipped to Siberia to lead a dog-sled team? Was he that bad last season for us to write him off? And, if so, could it have anything to do with his recovery from major knee surgery? I’d hate to see a talented player overlooked, but he certainly seems to have found a home in the doghouse with the fans AND the coaching staff. What’s up with this kid?
Joshua Neal: Good question, Matt. Things certainly looked very bright for Jeffrey just a few years ago. Many people saw him as a player with top-6 skills, decent skating ability, and a knack for killing off penalties. But in the year of attrition that saw the Penguins lose Crosby and Malkin to severe injuries, even DJ’s knee injury seemed to be overlooked. When he was able to get back on the ice last year for the Pens, he didn’t exactly seem like the same player. He had a really nice night in a game against Montreal that I can somewhat remember, but other than that he had a pretty pedestrian season.
This year has the potential to be much different, however. The race to skate with Malkin and Neal seems to have come down to Jeffrey, Kennedy, and Tangradi. Pittsburgh’s really got a crowded doghouse. Although Jeffrey is a natural center, I think that he brings the right mix of speed, size, and skill that might make him the best option available for that coveted second-line winger spot. Matt, do you see DJ earning this spot, or will he have to find another way to contribute?
Matt: You know Josh, it’s interesting you should mention him as an option on Malkin’s wing, as he profiles as a great fit if he can return to his pre-injury form. As you said, Jeffrey is a good skater, with a good shot and good defensive awareness. He’s not overly physical, but doesn’t shy from contact. He’s not overly offensive, but he’s not a liability. Simply put, he’s got the right mix of skills to be a good compliment to Malkin and Neal.
Now, the question: does he have the ability to regain the form that once had us so excited about his future? Playing for Zagreb Medvescak of the EBEL in Austria the last few months, Jeffrey totaled 23 points in 20 games (1.15 points per game). By no means is the EBEL the NHL, but recording a point per game in a professional league isn’t anything to sneeze at. Is it safe to say Jeffrey has regained his game, or do we have to throw out his EBEL performance due to circumstances and situations that can and likely will change with the start of the NHL season?
Josh: I think it’s a combination between the two. I think a player like Jeffrey certainly does a little better simply due to the larger surface and the more finesse-driven game that it inspires. We can’t automatically assume that he’s going to be putting up points at the same level, because as you’ve mentioned the level of competition is about to significantly improve. It’s encouraging that he had the opportunity to put numbers up and get ice time with the KHL in the first place, as it shows there is a level of value and skill there in the first place. One thing is for certain, though, and that is that whoever does tie down that slot with Neal and Malkin is sure to put up points at a feverish pace – the points will come. I think the main thing to be looking for out of Jeffrey is his presence. If we see him going in hard on forechecks, skating hard, and opening up space, we may see a really nice season from him. But we may see more of the lethargic, post-injury Jeffrey that seemed a bit more hesitant to do those things and a bit too inclined to rely on his skill rather than his will.
We’ve talked about the kind of role Jeffrey could play on the second line. What else does he bring to the table? Could he be a candidate to contribute in other ways? Personally I think he’ll be a pretty nice guy to have on the penalty kill. What do you think?
Matt: Well, as I type this, it’s Sunday afternoon and the training camp lines have been made official, with Jeffrey skating on a fifth unit with Bennett and Megna. If this is any indication, it looks as though he could have an uphill battle to secure a regular spot in the lineup, though I’d be surprised if he isn’t on the 23-man roster.
To your question, Josh, I think he has the defensive awareness, faceoff skills, and grit to be a quality third liner, if asked to fill such a role. We’ve heard some talk that Sutter could be asked to skate on Malkin’s line at times, particularly when faceoffs are of importance — having Jeffrey as a winger on the third line would provide a built-in replacement for Sutter during these times. But his biggest impact, at least early in the season, could come in the form of penalty killing. He’s more than capable in this role, and his offensive skills make him a threat to pot a few shorties.
Knowing what we know now (that Jeffrey is on the fifth line at camp), what are your final thoughts of DJ and his impact this season?
Josh Well, I think that DJ is a nice tool for the Penguins to hold onto. I look for him to work his way into the lineup and it would be nice for his play to then earn himself a spot as an every night player. I think that the shortened season and the need for fresh legs will give him some more opportunities to do a lot of things, perhaps even some things that we haven’t had the opportunity to see from him again. The real difference I think Jeffrey has in contrast to Kennedy and Tangradi is that I don’t know exactly what I’m getting with him. I’ve seen plenty to know what I’m going to get from Kennedy, and I’ve heard a lot about Tangradi, who we know is going to get his chance. But Dustin Jeffrey is a question mark that, because of all the different skills he possesses, will yield good results for the Penguins as they solidify their roster and move toward the season. It feels so good to be able to say that it’s less than a week away until we find out.