CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa — It took five months, 68 games, and a mental journey but Conor Sheary has reestablished his place with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Though that place is not what anyone expected when the season began.
Sheary is part Cinderella story, part redemption.
Last season was Sheary’s second NHL season. The undrafted college free agent signed a minor league deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014 and earned an NHL contract by excelling in the AHL. Last season, his first full NHL season, he scored 53 points in only 61 games.
He was most often sidesaddle with Sidney Crosby and this past offseason Sheary was rewarded with a three year, $9 million contract.
This season, things changed. For the worse.
Somewhere in the middle of the season, Sheary began to struggle. And he kept struggling.
“Maybe I was a little too hard on myself through the middle of the year,” Sheary told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “I was struggling to score and trying to do too much.”
The middle of the season was a bit of a wasteland for the fast but small Sheary. The 5-foot-8-inch winger could not find his game or the score sheet. In 44 games from Nov. 1 to March 1, Sheary scored just 16 points (7g, 9a). He shuffled around the lineup. Sheary bounced from fourth line assignments to attempts to jumpstart his season with brief top six work, and back to the bottom six.
Sheary’s place beside Crosby was taken by a long list of players including Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and even players like Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong.
“There comes an expectation when you sign a contract. And especially on this team, there is a lot of talent. And if you’re not producing or playing your role, there are guys who are going to step up, and I fell into that a little bit,” admitted Sheary.
In the last 14 games, Sheary’s fortunes have turned around. He has eight points (6g, 2a) and has otherwise become a positive force on the third line.
“The last couple weeks, I’ve created some chemistry with my linemates, which helps,” said Sheary. ” And I think I’ve also been getting to the little things–competing and winning puck battles. I think that’s really helped me.”
His straight-ahead game has reemerged and he again looks like a player able to help the Penguins on their quest for a third straight Stanley Cup. The team as a whole also flipped the switch, since the calendar turned to 2018. The Penguins won 28 of their last 41 games including three win streaks of four or more games. And one three-game winning streak.
When Pittsburgh Hockey asked Sheary if there was more adversity in the 2017-18 campaign compared to last year, he agreed. And he indirectly referenced the loss of team leaders like Matt Cullen and Marc-Andre Fleury.
“Yeah, I think so. There was a lot more turnover this past offseason than there was the year before,” he said. “And obviously we had a tough schedule to start the year. It wasn’t looking so good for us and the way we were playing.”
No, it wasn’t looking good in December. Newly acquired third line center Riley Sheahan was not driving offensive pressure, Crosby was being held below career norms, the Penguins were listless and unmotivated and they sat outside the playoff seedings.
Imagine that–the two time defending Stanley Cup champion, outside the playoffs for almost half the season.
The Penguins were also historically bad at 5v5. They were not generating offense beyond the power play.
In December, General Manager Jim Rutherford pulled a sneaky little deal when he sent grinding forward Josh Archibald, who was struggling to earn an NHL sweater, to Arizona for a fourth-round pick. Rutherford flipped that pick to Dallas for Jamie Oleksiak.
Suddenly the Penguins had some new blood and life. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan also began double shifting Crosby and Evgeni Malkin which created 5v5 offense throughout the lineup. Sheary snapped out of his funk on March 7, with a pair of goals against their eventual First Round opponent, the Philadelphia Flyers.
For those of us who cover the locker room, his body language had not hid his struggles. The weight of the slump was visible. His reaction that night in Philadelphia was a giant smile.
“I think we really found ourselves after the new year. And I think we’ve been playing really well since then,” Sheary smiled.
After a rough year, he rebounded when it mattered most. Indeed Sheary has earned a few smiles.