Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The time to hesitate is through


Arguing with the results of Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma opens one up to at least some form of ridicule. Bylsma won the Stanley Cup in his first half-season and coached the Penguins to a 100-point year in his first full season despite a subpar year from both goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin.

That hardly means Bylsma is perfect or that all his decisions are correct.

One of his MOs is any time he calls a player up from the AHL, said player will spend time on the fourth line, with spot time - occasionally, maybe - on the third line. This is essentially regardless of what the player has done at the minor league level.

Granted, it's quite a different beast going from the AHL to the NHL. Still, Bylsma at times seems reluctant to experiment and see if a recent call-up can cut it in the big leagues.

The most recent example is Dustin Jeffrey. A prospect once removed from the team's long-term plans, Jeffrey proceeded to string together quality performances in recent training camps, preseasons and with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and suddenly reemerged as "one to watch."

A 71-point season at the age of 21-22 will do that. That's the number Jeffrey put up in 2009-10 (24 goals) to lead the Baby Penguins in scoring. Despite being called up to Pittsburgh on several occasions this season (I think the number is up to five), Jeffrey still leads W-B/S with 45 points and is only one goal off the team lead despite the time he's missed.

Jeffrey, once a center, has been turned into a winger. Could he fill the glaring void in Pittsburgh's depth chart? Will the 42 goals in the past 117 AHL games translate to the NHL?

For a while, that was an answer we'd never find out. Despite his minor league numbers, Jeffrey, in seven NHL games this year, has been relegated to playing the fourth line with noted superstars Mike Rupp and Arron Asham or Craig Adams. In 15 previous NHL games, Jeffrey posted just three points, all in 2008-09 when he appeared in 14 contests.

This year, he has four points including a pair of goals. In his first game, Jeffrey scored the opening goal and set up a late insurance goal by Rupp in a 5-2 win over Buffalo. Jeffrey's contributions were particularly important since Evgeni Malkin did not play and someone needed to step up somewhere to provide offense.

His reward? Less than nine minutes of ice time in his next three games.

When a team like the Penguins is employing Matt Cooke, or Max Talbot, or Asham, guys like that, in a top-six role, talent like what Jeffrey might possess can't be wasted. I'd rather Jeffrey play big minutes and fail than to see those guys getting prime ice time. He can't do much worse than some other players right now. At least we'd find out whether or not Jeffrey can handle playing in the NHL.

Penguins fans will finally get that chance. With Sidney Crosby and Malkin still out, an injury this morning to center Mark Letestu has cut into Pittsburgh's depth. The plan, for now at least, is for Jeffrey to see time back at center between Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, Crosby's regular linemates.

Bylsma's hand is forced into this move. Jeffrey has logged more ice time lately and is on a very modest two-game points streak but now, finally, gets a chance to play with guys who have, you know, talent. Or, at least as much talent as Dupuis can provide.

Perhaps one line of Bylsma's thinking is he didn't want to push too much on Jeffrey too soon. He is still young (turning 23 in a few weeks) and the aforementioned lack of wingers in the system suggests many eyes will be on Jeffrey to perform well. But there comes a time when you need to know what a guy can bring, whether he merits a spot in the team's long-term plans.

Playing on the fourth line, receiving no or little power play time, won't do it.

It was Letestu, not Jeffrey, who centered the "top-line" wingers the last few games when Pittsburgh's top two centers were out of the lineup.

Keeping Jeffrey's minutes so low has been one of the head-scratching moves Bylsma continues to make. Maybe Jeffrey won't do anything with the time given him. Or maybe he will. Regardless, Jeffrey is one of the few players in the organization who might actually have talent and it makes no sense to play him nine minutes a night when Max Talbot hasn't scored a goal in 24 games, or when Tyler Kennedy has two goals since Dec. 4.

It's time to stop jerking Jeffrey around and give him an extended look and see if he is any good or not. Then maybe, just maybe, Pittsburgh will have finally found a player capable of scoring goals on a regular basis that isn't named Sidney or Evgeni.

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