Count me as one of those surprised by Conor Sheary and his Phase 3 camp performance for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It is only training camp, and Sheary’s opposition hasn’t yet tried to pound him into the glass or into the front row where fans used to sit, but Sheary has shown a vital facet to his game, which will directly aid Sidney Crosby.
During camp scrimmages, Sheary has adhered to head coach Mike Sullivan’s principle, “hold onto the puck down low.”
Sheary has shown speed getting to the corners and low in the zone, and he’s been able to hang onto the puck in those areas. By maintaining possession under pressure, Sheary forces defenders to commit to him, which leaves swaths of open ice for a pair guys named Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
“All three of us like to play down low, below the goal line,” Sheary said last Saturday. “A lot of times when you don’t have the puck, you’re trying to get open …. hopefully we can keep creating that chemistry and keep finding each other out there.”
The Penguins and Sheary hope to come full circle. Four seasons ago, Sheary burst into the NHL with the Penguins as a recently undrafted free agent. He scored only 10 points in 44 games in his rookie year, but the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, and Sheary also scored 10 points in the playoffs.
In Sheary’s sophomore season, Sullivan thrust him onto a line beside Crosby. Sheary popped for 53 points, including 23 goals and earned a three-year, $9 million contract.
But that’s when Sheary’s career turned sour. He fumbled and struggled with the Penguins in 2017-18. Sheary opened up to PHN late that season about the pressures of the contract and his disappointing 30-point output.
“Maybe I was a little too hard on myself through the middle of the year. I was struggling to score and trying to do too much,” Sheary told us then. “…if you’re not producing or playing your role, there are guys who will step up, and I fell into that a little bit.”
Sheary was off to Buffalo via trade that offseason, but his 30-point seasons continued. This season, he scored just 19 points in 55 games with the Buffalo Sabres and four more in eight games with the Penguins.
‘I don’t know specifically what it was (in Buffalo) that didn’t work out,” Sheary said last weekend, “but I’m glad I ended up back in Pittsburgh.”
At the trade deadline in February, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford sent talented but also light scoring winger Dominik Kahun to Buffalo to re-acquire Sheary. Rutherford was hoping to find a bargain which again paid off for the Penguins, just as Sheary did in 2016-17.
One of the knocks on Conor Sheary is his strength on the puck, or sometimes his lack of balance. Sheary, 5-foot-8, and 179-pounds, isn’t really built for the grinding, low game in the NHL. Defenders can often knock him to one-knee or the ice entirely.
However, Sheary also has speed, deft hands, and offensive awareness.
Those gifts haven’t been at the fore since he signed his three-year contract, but maybe returning to where it began will ignite Sheary. And that’s why his hard play down low in the scrimmages is more than encouraging.
His success and ability to complete the Penguins top line will be paramount to the Penguins success in the NHL playoffs, should the Penguins advance past the Montreal Canadiens in the Qualifying Round.
The Penguins have a reliable second line with three NHL players who fit their role, from consistent 20-goal scorer Jason Zucker on the left wing, generational talent Evgeni Malkin in the middle, and 27-goal scorer Bryan Rust on the right side.
The same goes for the Penguins third line, too. Patrick Marleau could well be in the Hall of Fame someday, and he can still skate like the wind. Jared McCann is a gritty and tenacious center whose overall work is unquestioned and consistent goal-scorer Patric Hornqvist on the right wing.
The Penguins biggest hole is right-wing on the top line.
If Conor Sheary again finds himself and if he pushes the puck low with Crosby and Guentzel, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have found something special … again.