Tim Benz: Penguins keep Conor Sheary, now he must find himself
Look who’s still here! It’s Conor Sheary! Sheary has been ticketed for a trade for so long, I kind of thought he was already off the roster.
Here’s the thing though: He never left.
His offense has been gone for a while. But he’s always been here.
Now the Penguins need to find a spot for him.
And Sheary needs to find himself.
Over the last two years the 25-year-old became the ultimate try-guy, “little engine that could” storyline. The undersized, undrafted afterthought morphed into a two-time Stanley Cup winger logging heavy minutes with living legend Sidney Crosby.
From his debut in December 2015 through the end of last year’s playoffs, Sheary totaled 80 points in 150 games.
Many of those points were tallied in five-on-five action. In fact, last regular season Steven Stamkos (3.29) was the only player with a better point rate per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time than Sheary (3.09).
But this year has been a struggle. Sheary has just 22 points in 60 games. He had 53 in 60 games last season. He’s a minus-3, his ice time is down a bit and his shooting percentage is a career low 11 percent.
Sheary also is in the midst of an 11-game goal drought. That slump dates to the start of 2018. He has scored just twice this calendar year.
As a result, it’s no wonder why so many Penguins fans expected him to be traded.
“Dear rest-of-the-NHL, Please take this $3 million black hole off our roster.
Thanks, Penguins fan & media Twitter accounts everywhere.”
But the rest of the league is likely seeing what hockey types here are looking at: A guy who isn’t big enough, physical enough or defensively oriented enough to impact a game positively when he isn’t scoring.
A guy who may not be worth much unless he is playing with Crosby.
After Monday’s trade deadline expired, general manager Jim Rutherford refused to comment about whether or not he tried to trade Sheary, opting instead for a public pep talk.
“He’s a good player,” Rutherford said. “He’s contributed to two Stanley Cups here. He’ll contribute to another one. We have full confidence in him.”
If Rutherford did offer Sheary to other teams, they either said “no” or responded with insultingly low return.
At the least, moving Sheary’s cap hit would have allowed room to add depth.
Such a deal never materialized though, and Sheary is still a Penguin.
It’s not like Sheary wanted to leave, or begged to get out of town.
Yet he didn’t feel comfortable pleading with Rutherford or Mike Sullivan to keep him here either.
“I don’t think you can approach them about things like that,” Sheary said before the team’s recent road trip. “That’s the business side of things. It’s out of your control.”
So, for better or worse, Sheary is still in town.
That being said, where should he play? Should he play at all?
Goal one should be what’s best for the two star centers. Evgeni Malkin has been great with Carl Hagelin on his left side. Both Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist have been good on his right side when placed there this year.
Between now and the regular season’s end, Sullivan must figure out who will begin the playoffs on Malkin’s right side and who will be on Crosby’s.
It’s believed Phil Kessel will be paired with newly acquired center Derick Brassard once he arrives. Assuming fourth-line center Riley Sheahan will have either Carter Rowney or Tom Kuhnhackl on his right wing for penalty-killing purposes, that leaves three left wing spots for Sheary, Zach Aston-Reese and Jake Guentzel.
I think Guentzel provides more high-end potential with Crosby. Play him there.
That means Sheary needs to find a fit with Brassard and Kessel. If that doesn’t work out, then Aston-Reese plays on the third line and Sheary plays limited minutes on a non-traditional fourth line that may rely on skill as much as grit and grind.
Or, there are plenty of spots in the press box. Maybe Sheary will be there and Dominik Simon will be on the ice.
“It’s how you are playing on the ice and what specifically a team needs,” said Sheary.
What this Penguins team needs is for Sheary to be what Pascal Dupuis became in 2010 — a useful five-on-five forward who regained his form after taking a step back in 2009, which included a 16-game pointless postseason en route to the Stanley Cup.
What this Penguins needs is for young Sheary to be the Sheary of old.
Even if that’s in a reduced role.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.