A reality is emerging. The Penguins may not be able to afford Conor Sheary.
A couple hours before the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed to a three-year contract with restricted free agent defenseman Justin Schultz last Saturday, Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford admitted the team and Sheary, 25, were not close on a contract. The Penguins have just over $11 million in cap space (according to Capfriendly.com) but have vacancies at third and fourth line center. The Penguins also must re-sign top pairing, restricted free agent defenseman Brian Dumoulin.
Can the Penguins afford to re-sign Conor Sheary? Can they afford to trade him? The simple answer is–that’s up to Sheary and his contract demand.
Few wingers find such chemistry with Sidney Crosby. Some fans and media have floated a number of $2-$2.5 million, annually. The Penguins would probably jump at that value. Sheary…not so much. Based on empirical data and comparison, Sheary could command $4 million, or more.
However, empirical data conflicts with some eye tests, which complicates the matter.
The diminutive winger (5-foot-8, 175 pounds) scored 53 points in 61 games last season and finished the playoffs where he spent most of the season–on the Penguins top line beside Sidney Crosby. Sheary had more than a one goal per 60 minutes positive effect on Crosby. With Sheary and Crosby, the Penguins averaged 3.79 goals per 60 minutes. Without Sheary and Crosby together, the team averaged just 2.57 goals per 60. In fact, Sheary had similar numbers and effects on centers Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, though Sheary played less than 60 minutes with each.
Sheary’s points per game numbers put him in an expensive company.
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Excluding Patrik Laine, because he is on his rookie contract, the other players in Sheary’s production range are well paid. Seguin is the lowest paid player, at $5.75 million.
By the numbers, Sheary’s camp can easily make a case for a $4 million salary. In fact, with age and production, Sheary compares similarly with Artemi Panarin, now of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Panarin, 25, signed a bridge deal with the Blackhawks (before being dealt to Columbus for Brandon Saad) for 2-years, $12 million.
Still think Sheary will sign for $2 million? Yeah, um, no.
(Stats from stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
But the Eyes
Sheary was nearly a point per game player in the regular season but had just seven points in 22 playoffs games. In the physical wars for the Stanley Cup, Sheary struggled. He was not strong on the puck and was not successful in the corners. He was pushed around by opponents.
In the regular season, Sheary was fast and effective. Sheary was easily the most effective Crosby linemate during the season, but for the second consecutive playoffs, head coach Mike Sullivan was forced to serve him a couple plates of pressbox nachos.
If Sheary makes Crosby one goal per 60 minutes better, that is worth a healthy payday. The Penguins lost Chris Kunitz via free agency and are now short of left wingers. Sheary can play Crosby’s left side, though that spot on the top line figures to be held by Jake Guentzel.
Sheary does not have the skillset for a bottom-six forward role, so his place in the lineup is confined to the top line. Even though the small sample posits Sheary helped the third and fourth line scoring when he skated on those lines, it’s likely his physical shortcomings would be exposed over the course of a season.
The bottom six play lesser minutes, but traditionally they are harder minutes. Third and fourth lines often see a majority of defensive zone starts and faceoffs. To lose puck battles in the defensive zone is to put a team at risk.
Like Chicago did with Panarin, the Pens may be wise to offer Sheary a short bridge deal. In one or two years, the organization will know a lot more about the talent in the pipeline, including Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese. To pay Sheary his full worth in the short term could negate the ability to sign Brian Dumoulin, who is a top pairing defenseman. In the long term, it could make Sheary less tradeable if Sprong or Aston-Reese pass him on the depth chart.
Oh, and a big contract for Sheary could limit the Penguins immediate ability to acquire a legitimate third line center.
As an RFA, the Penguins control the situation, but it will be Sheary’s decisions which dictate the Penguins action. If the sides can compromise on a deal south of $4 million, the Penguins will have enough capital for everything else. Beyond $4 million, the Penguins can’t afford him.
They also can’t afford to lose him… at least not without a healthy return via trade.