When Jean-Sebastien Dea came back deep into his own zone to help out defenseman Niclas Andersen during a Dec. 16 game at Lehigh Valley, he was eventually setting himself up for a goal.
Dea was able to collect the puck in his own end and get it deep into the offensive zone. An aggressive forecheck behind the Phantoms’ net forced goaltender Jason LarBarbera to turn the puck over to a waiting Dea in front, who calmly skated across the crease and buried a shot into an open net.
For Dea, it was the ultimate example of playing a two-way game, an aspect he’s worked to improve during his second year as a pro.
Dea joined the Pittsburgh organization in 2014 as an undrafted free agent after wrapping up three seasons in juniors where he posted lofty goal totals. But after scoring 45 and 49 goals in his last two seasons in juniors, Dea found that the scoring wasn’t as easy to come by in the pro ranks.
Last season as a rookie, Dea scored 10 goals in 43 games with the Penguins and spent some time in Wheeling. This year, Dea’s eight goals in 27 games are only two off his career high, and his plus-10 reflects his dedication to applying his game at both ends of the ice.
It’s an aspect that interim head coach Jay Leach is happy to see, and one that allows him to play Dea’s line on a regular shift.
“I told JS if he’s sound defensively in his own end, then I can roll four lines,” Leach said. “To his credit he’s a terrific job with that. He’s done a really nice job from the start of the year on.”
Still, Dea isn’t about to abandon his strength while he improves his play defensively. For a player who posted 160 points in 133 games in his last two seasons in juniors, Dea hopes to return to those lofty totals as a pro.
In order to become an offensive threat, Dea knows he has to make sure that plays where the puck ends up on his stick in front of the opponents’ net finish with a goal. That’s exactly what he did in Lehigh Valley.
“That’s what I’m good at - scoring goals,” said Dea, who is tied for the AHL lead with four game-winning goals. “I have to show that in those situations I can put it in the net.”
Last season, Dea admitted, his play wasn’t up to par. While he did score 10 goals with the Penguins, he was often a healthy scratch and eventually wound up in Wheeling for a time.
Now, with a year of experience under his belt, Dea has a different outlook.
“Last year I was trying to learn how the league worked,” he said. “Now, it’s a little less stress. I know how to approach games. It’s easier, but I also know I need to keep working on it every day.”
For Dea, that work actually began in the summer when he logged hours in the gym to improve his speed and strength. Not only is he faster, but Dea is also stronger along the boards and is more effective at winning puck battles.
That improvement, combined with a system implemented by former head coach Mike Sullivan that encourages offensive creativity, Dea is ready to have a breakout season in the AHL.
“I love it. I can use my skill in the offensive zone with this kind of a system,” Dea said. “We’re all creating more offense, scoring goals and you can see the results. We’re winning games.”
Now, Dea hopes his strong play produces one more result - his first NHL call-up.
“You always want to do better than you did last season and I know I have to step up when other guys go up to Pittsburgh,” Dea said. “But coming in to my second year after having a good camp in Pittsburgh, you have to keep working because you never know when you might get that call.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TLTomVenesky