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AHL wing prospect Sheary an intriguing option for Penguins

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins' Kris Letang defends Conor Sheary during practice Friday, Sept. 19, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

WILKES-BARRE — Conor Sheary has been watching the Stanley Cup playoffs, probably a bit closer than most.

He has seen Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson, who’s 5-foot-8, lead the NHL in postseason goals.

And Martin St. Louis, who’s the same height, help the New York Rangers force a Game 7 against the Washington Capitals.

Sheary, a winger who is only a touch taller at 5-9, predictably has a big place in his heart for smaller players.

“When guys have done it before and paved the way a little bit, you know you’re not alone,” he said. “You just have to compete and play hard and forget about your size, focus on other things like quickness and strength. People can’t deny that when you have that.”

Sheary, 22, is trying to prove to the Penguins that offense and playmaking transcend height. His platform has a somewhat unexpected starting point: defense.

Sheary is not afraid to play defense, citing Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, a three-time Selke Trophy winner and a player widely recognized as one of the best two-way forwards, as someone he models his game after.

“It’s always been something I’ve worked on,” Sheary said. “People look at guys like me and think they’re all offense.

“But when you’re stuck in your own zone, you can’t play offense, and the game’s not fun.”

Baby Pens coach John Hynes is known for his defensive work and structured system.

The freedom to freelance, which Sheary admitted he did in college at Massachusetts, is gone.

Sheary has specific responsibilities. And he takes them seriously.

“He’s a highly talented player,” Hynes said. “At the same time, he’s been able to play within the structure without the puck.

“He’s responsible, but I think he also realizes that when you’re in good positions defensively, you become a better offensive player because it’s more of a team game.”

Sheary led the Baby Pens with 45 points during the regular season and ranked second with 20 goals.

In the playoffs, he elevated his game even more, something Hynes thinks will go a long way toward Sheary proving his stature isn’t something to worry about.

Besides leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with 12 points in eight games — nearly two times as many as anyone else — Sheary ranked fourth in the American Hockey League in playoff scoring before the Baby Penguins were eliminated by the Manchester Monarchs on Tuesday.

Over 23 playoff games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the past two years, Sheary has 23 points.

“There’s always a question mark when you have smaller guys: Can they elevate their play in the NHL?” Hynes said.

“He’s been pretty successful at this level, which is the second-best league in the world.

“He’s been very good in the playoffs, which I think is a pretty good indicator of the ability to step up to the next level.”

Sheary played this year on an AHL-only contract. Given the season he’s produced, he’s hoping he did enough to earn a two-way deal this offseason.

Hynes said being “elusive” and “quick” are two of Sheary’s biggest assets. It’s a style that’s essential at his height.

“There are big defensemen out there, big forwards who catch you, and you could be out for awhile,” Sheary said.

“You have to learn your way around it.”

Not that Sheary can’t deliver a hit. During the first period Monday in Game 4 of the Baby Pens’ Eastern Conference semifinal series, he sent 6-foot-4, 200-pound defenseman Kevin Gravel through the door to the Baby Pens bench.

But make no mistake. Sheary’s game is built on finesse and scoring ability. The varsity club needs an infusion of young players capable of finishing, and Sheary provides an intriguing option.

“Even though he’s a smaller guy, he’s extremely competitive and not afraid,” Hynes said. “He finds ways to compensate for his lack of size. That’s a lot of times what you see from smaller players who are impact guys in the NHL.”

Like Johnson and St. Louis.

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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