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Sheary drawing unfair criticism

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Despite the vitriol that has been directed toward him from portions of the fan base, Conor Sheary is performing as expected this season.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

In phase one of the Buffalo Sabres’ “roster overhaul” this past summer, Jason Botterill acquired left-winger, Conor Sheary in a trade with his former employer, the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the trade was announced, a majority of Sabres fans were satisfied with the return. Just one year removed from posting 53 points in 61 games alongside Sidney Cosby, the 26-year-old represented a much needed boost to the overall forward depth in Buffalo.

As the team continues to tumble further and further out of the playoff picture, as can be expected, fans have started pointing their fingers in a multitude of different directions. Recently, Sheary has been the recipient of criticism that, when reviewing both his underlying numbers and base statistics, is perhaps unfair, or at least misguided.

We’ll start with what we can see on the surface. In 55 games so far this season, Sheary has posted 24 points, which paces him out at a 36 point clip over 82 games. That total would represent the second-highest mark of his career (the aforementioned 2016-17 campaign being the highest). From a base-statistical perspective, he’s been a pillar of consistency (and even slight-improvement) from last season to now, so why is he drawing so much ire?

Before the Sabres acquired Jeff Skinner, a lot of people had Sheary penciled into the lineup alongside Jack Eichel in the thought that he could perhaps recreate the success he experienced in 2016-17 beside another elite centerman in Eichel. To date, he has skated alongside Eichel for a grand total of 100:21 this season. To put that number in perspective, he’s spent considerably more time flanking the ever-ineffective Vladimir Sobotka (137:04) and rookie pivot, Casey Mittelstadt (344:52).

Most people are probably already aware of that, which is why the recent criticism is all the more vexing. Were the blue-and-gold faithful expecting him to catalyze his own line? If so, their expectations were unfounded based on his track record of being a complimentary player who requires a high-level center in order to surpass a half-point per game clip. Despite popular belief, there is actually a case to be made that he is exceeding the expectations that should have been placed on him given the production precedents that he set during his time in Pittsburgh.

Now, on the surface, Sheary’s base-numbers are pretty consistent, but one thing that sticks out is his shooting percentage in 2018-19. At 9.4-percent, his conversion rate is not only at a career-low, but it’s considerably lower than his previous career-average of 13.83-percent. That trend is particularly odd when analyzing his shot-metrics.

As evidenced by the chart below, Sheary currently holds the fourth-highest shots-on-target-percentage on the team at 75.81-percent. His xG per-shot ratio is also second only to Jeff Skinner (and tied with Sam Reinhart) among his fellow forwards in Buffalo (given Patrik Berglund’s very limited sample size and the fact that he is no longer with the team, his numbers have been excluded here).

As you can imagine, given his high rate of shots-on-target, Sheary’s concentration of high-danger chances is also quite impressive. Taking this knowledge in context, it might be fair to draw the conclusion that, while he’s doing a great job of putting himself in a position to score, he’s just not getting the same “puck luck” that he was accustomed to in years prior.

To build on that hypothesis (shown in the next chart), his goal conversion rate in high-danger areas has actually been about the same as it is when he shoots in the vicinity of the left-dot (another area of relatively heavy shot-concentration for him).

From a “bang-for-your-buck” standpoint, Sheary’s annual cap hit of $3 million per season (which takes him through the 2019-20 campaign) makes him the seventh-highest paid forward on the Sabres’ ledger (not including Matt Moulson). Granted, it’s not like the Sabres are flush with players who are currently living up to their pay-grade, but that number is pretty consistent with what players of his production level tend to earn.

One last thing (and perhaps the most important) to note is the positive Corsi effect he is having on Mittelstadt, his most consistent linemate. Alongside Sheary, the 20-year-old holds a Corsi-percentage of 51.78. Away from him, Mittelstadt’s Corsi drops to 45.0. Again, part of this can be partially attributed to the Sabres lack of depth, but it’s worth noting that only Evan Rodrigues has had a more positive effect on the rookie, who has spent at least 100 minutes with five different wingers this season.

At the end of the day, the Sabres are getting what should be expected from Sheary. Ideally, he’d serve as a middle-six player who rides shotgun with a play-making center, but the organization just don’t have the depth down the middle to maximize his ability to contribute on the score sheet.

The real test comes next season, assuming he continues to spend time on Mittelstadt’s wing. For now, his performance in 2018-19 has been more than satisfactory, given the circumstances.