Marcus Stroman is a Major League Baseball pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and recently led team USA to win the World Baseball Classic. He was told for most of his life he was too small. So he has a catchphrase, it’s kind of famous if you are a fan of his – height doesn’t measure heart or HDMH for short. I start by telling this story because it’s a great description for Penguins forward Conor Sheary, too. Sheary, much like Marcus Stroman, is powered by heart. Sure, he might be one of the smallest NHL regulars right now but he’s had a breakout season in a big way in 2016-2017 that we, unlike The Hockey News apparently, are aware is more about how he plays than his size or who he is playing with.
In the beginning, Conor Sheary was just a young player out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The minutemen were never great while Sheary was a student. They only won 4 games when he was a senior and lost 13. Yet, he found ways to rack points up. Perhaps it was because he was a good player on a bad team or perhaps it was just his size but he wasn’t one of the more sought after commodities when he left school. Oh sure, people who knew prospects thought he was a nice add to the Penguins system when they signed him on an AHL deal but there was little fanfare.
So Sheary went to work. He went to the rink every day and played for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. He talked to coaches and perhaps most importantly he listened to the development staff. He worked on battles, on explosiveness, on speed, and on other things that would later become the hallmarks of his game while putting up 20G – 25A – 45P in 58 games as an AHL rookie. Then he was re-signed to a two-way deal on July 1, 2015, for the next two years. The deal would allow him to slide between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh but still, not much noise was made. At this point, people knew him enough to think he was a nice little player who might one day play in Pittsburgh. There were rumbles that he had potential but mostly it was just business as usual. Until it wasn’t. The turning point was probably somewhere on the drive from Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh, a drive Sheary learned quite well during the 2015-2016 season while playing 30 games in the AHL and 44 in the NHL.
Because somewhere between his first recall and his last something changed. One of the things people comment on constantly regarding Sheary is that he doesn’t defer to Crosby, but he did at one time. In one of his first games, he got the Crosby line assignment. Young and excited he thought he would pass to Sid. And again. And again. Until eventually Sheary was moved off of the line with Crosby. But he learned. He worked on trusting his instincts at the NHL-level until in the final he was slithering along the boards in a top-6 role. And he’s never looked back.
He’s been a regular linemate of Crosby for most of the season because he can do something a lot of people can’t out there. Think as fast as 87. Sheary, while diminutive in size has always had that going for him. He’s had to work to build the strength of his body up to go into corners and come up with the puck seemingly every single time. He’s had to strengthen his reflexes and get quick to slip out from under massive would-be hits. He’s had to work on so many things and at first glance that’s all it appears to be.
“Oh, the quick kid is keeping up with Crosby.”
“All you need to play with 87 is wheels.”
But if that were true there would never have been an issue finding Crosby the right wings. No, it’s not just speed. It’s understanding. Sheary knows how to travel on the ice, how to possess the puck, and how to maneuver his way to the net front from the corner and keep the puck as he does it. He boasts a 57% scoring chances for percentage, which as we all know is a stat Sullivan likes to use. He has continually been among league leaders in game-score and his points-per-60-minutes-played is also among tops league-wide.
He has only played in 59 games this season due to injury but has 52 points including 22 goals. He has more points than Brandon Saad but is being paid 1/10th of the famous Pittsburgh native’s salary. So while Sheary benefits from playing with Crosby he also carries his own quite nicely. He has even played himself into the conversation of who the Penguins need to worry about protecting from the expansion draft this summer. Yes, he plays with the greatest player in the world. But in the end isn’t that an accomplishment in and of itself? Undrafted to the top line with Sidney Crosby? It takes a lot of things to keep up with that line, especially now that Jake Guentzel has joined it and Conor Sheary has them all in spades. It’s not just Crosby that drives the lines legendary possession numbers, Guentzel and Sheary are pulling their weight easily and it’s time we stop putting an asterisk next to their success simply because it’s occurred with Crosby.