Last season didn’t go as planned for the Buffalo Sabres, as well as, for a few players on the roster. A handful fell short of expectations entering the season and was one the reasons that the Sabres ended up where they did in the standings.
A player that could fall into this category according to some fans and media is winger Conor Sheary. The 27-year-old scored 14 goals and 34 points in his first season with the Sabres. He scored more points last season than he did in his final year with the Pittsburgh Penguins but ultimately fell short of producing at the pace of the 53-point, 2016-17 campaign.
At best, Sheary is a player that can score you around 20 goals and 40 points a season. He wasn’t far off that last season and the premise that he was a disappointment isn’t a fair assessment of his play. He was an impact player offensively at 5 on 5 and fought through bad luck a lot of last year.
The Massachusetts-born forward produced at a higher points per 60 minutes rate at even strength than he did with the Penguins during his final season in Pittsburgh. He was fifth among Sabres forwards to play at least 100 minutes in 5 on 5 P/60 last season behind Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, Sam Reinhart, and Jason Pominville.
Sheary was third on the club in individual expected goals at 5 on 5 among players to play at least 100 minutes for the Sabres. Meaning, he continued to go to the areas of the ice that allowed him to get quality scoring chances. The shot chart below from Sean Tierney verifies the high ixG rating for Sheary. Most of his shooting opportunities come from the slot in tight on the goaltender.
As I mentioned, he did a lot of the right things last season but wasn’t getting the results. Hockey can be a cruel game sometimes if a team or a player isn’t getting the bounces. According to Moneypuck, Sheary shot 3.4 goals below expected at 5 on 5 during the 2018-19 season, which is usually an indication that a bounce-back season could be in the cards. Especially when you consider he shot above expected the two years prior with the Penguins. Now, some of that could be the effect of Sidney Crosby but a drastic drop like that isn’t due solely to the quality of teammate change.
Another sign of a rebound on the horizon is the dip in shooting percentage for Sheary. Entering last season, he had a career shooting percentage of 13.7% and he shot 9.5% last season. The biggest drop off was in his 5 on 5 shooting percentage. It went from 12.99% to 6.5% this past season.
Sheary knows how to find the openings in the defense to get scoring opportunities in the offensive zone. He’s also strong on the forecheck and battles hard for the puck. Watch this clip below of a sequence against the Dallas Stars. His feet are always moving in the offensive zone and he reads the play very well.
He passes the puck off to a teammate and immediately reads where the puck is going to go. He beats Miro Heiskanen to the net for a scoring chance and then beats a defender to the loose puck to keep the offensive zone possession alive.
Again, in this clip, he continues to move around the zone to give Reinhart an outlet for a pass. He gets position on Justin Faulk and gets a scoring chance.
This last clip, he’s in front of the net (per usual) as the Blue Jackets defense forgets about him and he hammers home what eventually ends up being the game-winning goal.
It’ll be interesting to see how new head coach Ralph Krueger plans to deploy Sheary next season. He played primarily left-wing, but general manager Jason Botterill mentioned the possibility of playing him on the other wing this summer. He did do that for some time in Pittsburgh when Botterill was with the Penguins and had some success on that wing.
The Sabres have a log jam at left-wing if you included Sheary with Marcus Johansson, Victor Olofsson, Jimmy Vesey, and Skinner all currently on the roster. They need help on the right side and if Sheary can make the jump to the other side, it could help them spread out scoring throughout the lineup. With how well he played Eichel at points last season, it makes you wonder if the Sabres have plans of putting him on that right side on the top line.
Sheary is going into the final season of his contract and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. When you combine that motivation with the fact that the numbers signal he’s due for a rebound in production; the Sabres could get a big season from the veteran winger.