PITTSBURGH-When Sidney Crosby is ready to return to the Pittsburgh Penguins, his spot in the lineup is guaranteed.
Same with Jordan Staal, who is currently sidelined with a knee injury.
But the circumstances are different for the players who occupy lower spots on the depth chart.
That's why a significant knee injury late last season was so devastating for versatile forward Dustin Jeffrey.
Jeffrey tore the ACL in his knee during a game at Philadelphia last March 24. The injury, and the subsequent surgery, ended his season just when he was beginning to stake his claim to an NHL job.
He played in 25 games for the Penguins last year in the second half of the season, producing seven goals, 12 points and a plus-5 rating.
Just when it looked like he was establishing himself as an NHL player, he took a detour to the operating room.
"It was frustrating," he said. "You're finally here and playing on a consistent basis and contributing. To have this injury and to be out as long as I was.even coming into training camp, I was hoping I'd be ready. I had a setback. I was watching a lot of hockey, and that's frustrating when you can't be there with your teammates."
Jeffrey, who turns 24 this month, was the Penguins' sixth round pick in the 2007 draft.
After the surgery, Jeffrey stayed in Pittsburgh to do rehab work under the supervision of the team's medical staff.
They eventually cleared him to go home to Sarnia, Ont. and continue working with a trainer there.
Jeffrey came to training camp, hoping to make the opening night roster.
He did, but he didn't make his season debut until Oct. 20, the Penguins' ninth game.
He played in six games, never logging more than 11:40 of ice time, and failing to get a point.
It became apparent that he wasn't ready.
Jeffrey headed to Wilkes Barre on a conditioning assignment from Nov. 9 to 14, then came back to Pittsburgh to work some more to build strength and flexibility in his knee.
It wasn't until Jan. 11 that he was ready to rejoin the lineup. Somewhere between November and January, his knee started to feel somewhat normal again.
"After I came back from my conditioning stint, I took a couple of weeks and had it drained," he said. "I think when I started to see how if felt after the swelling was out of there, that's when I realized that's how it's supposed to feel."
Jeffrey has been in the lineup since then, although usually with a third or fourth line. With Crosby and Staal, sometimes Jeffrey jumps up to the second line.
He can play center or the wing, and coach Dan Bylsma has moved him around.
His best game was on Jan. 20 at home against Montreal, when he scored two goals and had an assist.
"He's played extremely well," Bylsma said. "He's done a lot of good things for us and played in that second center position."
It's natural for a young player to worry about his spot when he's out with an injury. The Penguins have a very competitive situation.
Earlier this season, center Mark Letestu was traded to Columbus because Richard Park and Joe Vitale passed him on the depth chart.
Jeffrey said he did his best to focus on his rehab and avoid fretting about his place in the Penguins' plans.
"That's something you can't really worry about," he said. "I'm still young and I feel like I'm going to have a long career somewhere. I had to make sure I was healthy to the point where it was safe to come back and play.
"Obviously the first time I came back, I wasn't where I needed to be to play at this level. They were very patient with me. They understood what was going on and what I was going through. You want to be back and play right away, but you have to think about long term. At the start that was the hardest part."
Now it's just a matter of producing when opportunities arise. Jeffrey said he doesn't think about his knee and is able to play his usual game.
"The biggest thing I've been working on now is getting back into game shape and getting the timing right," he said. "The first two or three games back, I think it's all adrenalin. You're just trying to keep you head above water. The games after that, I think I was able to get back to where my game was, and create some chances and contribute."
Question of the week
n What did you on the All-Star break?
n Matt Cooke: "I went to Jamaica. It was nice, warm and fun to be on the beach. Vitamin D is a good thing. It's not often that we get to get away as a family like that, so this was a good time for us."
n Deryk Engelland: "I went back home. I live in Las Vegas in the summer. I bought a house and had to do some renovations on it, so I went home."
n Matt Niskanen: "I went to Fort Lauderdale. It was nice to catch some rays."
n Ben Lovejoy: "I stayed in Pittsburgh. Can't you tell by my tan? No, my wife teaches third grade and she doesn't have vacation. Last year I went to Florida and it was hectic going back and forth. I was very happy to stay here and sleep."
n Dustin Jeffrey: "I went to Jamaica for four days. It's an opportunity to kind of clear your mind."
n Tyler Kennedy: "I went ice fishing. I went back home and it was a good time."
n Marc-Andre Fleury: "I went to Mexico. Relaxed, had a good time. It was nice and warm."
Stars coming out?
Could the NHL All-Star game come back to Pittsburgh?
Penguins president David Morehouse has promised to lobby hard for the event to be held at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins will host the NHL draft this year on June 22-23 and had the Winter Classic at Heinz Field on Jan. 1, 2011.
The only NHL All-Star game in Pittsburgh was 1990 at the Civic Arena.
The 2013 game will be in Columbus. The NHL has not committed beyond that.
"In a few years, the NHL All-Star might be coming to Pittsburgh," Morehouse said.