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Matt-alytics: Is Riley Sheahan Rising to the Occasion?

His primary strength — defense — is airtight. But despite a recent outburst of points, offense remains the question.



By Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0]

None of us should be defined by our worst moments, but in our meme-happy culture, it’s no surprise Riley Sheahan was labeled as the guy who couldn’t score when the Penguins acquired him in October.

No doubt his two-goal outburst last spring in Joe Louis Arena’s finale took the edge off 79 consecutive fruitless games. Still, Sheahan’s five-year NHL career carries the stigma of his near-goalless 2016-17 for Detroit.

(Sheahan probably should be grateful for this, since a regrettable drunk-driving incident involving a Teletubbies costume was previously his claim to infamy.)

In reality, no NHL-caliber player is offensively challenged enough to be a 2-percent shooter over a career, as Sheahan was in 2016-17. With virtually the same number of shot attempts, Sheahan had buried 14 goals for the Red Wings in 2015-16. He had 13 the year before that. As a Penguin, he’s scored six times on 72 shots, an 8.3 percentage that’s on par with his career averages.

So we’ve established that he’s not an inept finisher, a perception Mike Sullivan made sure to debunk soon after the Penguins brought Sheahan aboard. Lately, with the 26-year-old Sheahan scoring points in six of his past nine games, Sullivan has been asked more and more about the ultimate potential of his current third-line pivot.

“He’s pitched in a few goals,” Sullivan said of Sheahan earlier this week. “He’s set up some plays. That’s going to give any player a boost of confidence. I think Riley is a good, solid, two-way center.”

Finding a Fit

Sheahan’s no 200-foot game-changer, but to be fair, his defense is pretty airtight.

From 2014-17, only seven centers with 2,500 or more even-strength minutes allowed fewer shot attempts per hour than Sheahan’s 49.5. The Penguins have given up 56.0 attempts per 60 minutes with Sheahan on the ice this season, but that’s the best mark among the team’s regular centers.

Offense is still a work in progress, though. With 55.2 shots generated per hour, Sheahan is well ahead of Carter Rowney‘s 52.6, but it hasn’t been enough to make Sheahan a net positive in on-ice shot attempts.

In looking at Sheahan’s most frequent linemates, it’s not like he’s been stuck with pluggers, either. His most common running mates have been Phil KesselJake GuentzelBryan Rust and Patric Hörnqvist, but only with Hörnqvist has Sheahan consistently pushed play toward the opposing net, with.a shot-attempt ratio (Corsi For) at an eye-popping 60 percent alongside No. 72.

Perhaps that’s the combo for Sullivan to pursue once Hörnqvist returns from injury. In the meantime, we’re likely to see Guentzel and Conor Sheary on Sheahan’s flanks, as they were for the start of the past two games. Considering Sheary’s proven chemistry with Sidney Crosby, maybe Guentzel and Hörnqvist could eventually give the Penguins a decent attacking line around Sheahan.

Modest Success

Of course, that’s all assuming Jim Rutherford isn’t going to get a more effective player to center the third line. As Dan Kingerski and I discussed on this week’s Press Box Nachos podcast, the Penguins’ aggressive general manager is sounding like he’s going to push for a real upgrade in the middle of the ice.

If we can look past Sheahan’s recent hot streak on the scoresheet, finding someone better is likely still the best route. Although Sheahan has seven points (2g, 5a) over his past nine games, his Corsi For over that span is 44.0 percent, well shy of the team’s 49.9 percent during that timeframe.

At least Sheahan appears to have one thing going for him lately: Confidence in the offensive zone. A man questioning himself on the attack wouldn’t be able to pull this kind of move off in tight quarters against Jake Allen on Sunday:

“He sees the ice very well,” Sullivan said the next day. “He’s got a heavy shot. There’s a lot there. That’s what we think. We’re going to continue to push Riley to another level. He’s not just a one-dimensional player.”

Suppressing shots and chipping in the occasional goal or assist? Sounds like a decent third-line center, but a better fourth-line center. Turns out first impressions can be accurate, too. At age 26 and with 341 NHL games to his name, Sheahan likely is what he is.