Conor Sheary came to Washington nearly two years ago looking to reinvent himself. He was coming off a tough couple of seasons in Buffalo and felt his confidence hit rock bottom only a few years after he won back-to-back championships with Pittsburgh in 2016 and ’17.
The Capitals signed Sheary — then an unrestricted free agent looking for a new home — ahead of the 2020-21 season to a one-year, $735,000 deal. It was a low-risk move, and it has paid off.
Sheary, 30, has flourished in his utility role. He re-signed with Washington in April 2021 on a two-year, $3 million deal, and in a contract year this season, he has seven goals — second most on the team behind Alex Ovechkin’s nine.
Sheary will get another chance to add to his season totals when Washington (8-10-3) plays the Calgary Flames on Friday afternoon at Capital One Arena. His last goal came Nov. 18 in Washington’s 5-4 shootout loss to St. Louis.
“He makes plays out of nothing,” Marcus Johansson, who also played with Sheary in Buffalo, said of the winger. “He complements almost everyone. … I think it is impressive to watch him play. He is fast; he is skilled. He has got the whole package.”
Sheary’s career started when Pittsburgh signed him as a free agent in July 2015. The undrafted player spent his first three years in the NHL with the Penguins, playing on the top line with Sidney Crosby. He recorded 53 points in 2016-17.
“Shears is probably on the quieter side, but being on the same line and playing with each other over the years, he played the same way every night,” Crosby said. “He still does. He brings a lot of speed, plays hard and takes advantage of every opportunity, and took advantage of the opportunity when he was called up. You knew what to expect from him, and it was a lot of fun playing with him over the years.”
Carl Hagelin, who also played with Sheary in Pittsburgh, complimented the winger’s innate ability to find soft spots around the ice to both dish assists to teammates and light the goal lamp himself.
“It is not easy to play with superstars, and if you are not playing well with them, they don’t want you on their line,” Hagelin said. “He obviously did something right.”
Sheary’s time in Pittsburgh came to an end in June 2018, when the Penguins traded him to the Sabres in a salary-clearing move. In Buffalo, Sheary said, he felt his game slip away. He returned to Pittsburgh briefly at the 2020 trade deadline, but the Penguins didn’t re-sign him, and Washington picked him up in the offseason.
“I don’t want to harp on the time in Buffalo, but when I was there, I didn’t have a clear-cut role, I didn’t think,” Sheary said. “I was up and down the lineup, in and out of the lineup, [which] just messes with you a little bit. And once I got here, I was able to stabilize in a certain role and play a certain role.”
Johansson said he also felt his confidence was gone during his time with the Sabres. It was a combination of not getting team results on the ice and not seeing the progress of individual play. Sheary’s confidence also slipped in Buffalo because he didn’t have much leeway on the ice to make mistakes.
“If you find a good fit and get that confidence, it doesn’t mean that you have to score a goal every game,” Hagelin said. “It’s just that an average game will not get you out of the lineup, and I think that is what he was feeling in Buffalo.”
Sheary has averaged 16 minutes of ice time in Washington. He is also the most complete player he has been since entering the league. He plays in all situations, including on the power play, on the penalty kill, four-on-four, five-on-six and six-on-five.
“I’ve definitely taken the defensive side of the game a lot more serious,” Sheary said. “When I came into the league, I was … an offensive player and wanted to play top-six, and once I realized you have to play both ends to be successful, that helped me.”
Sheary’s penalty-kill prowess has been one of the most impressive parts of his game. Before he came to Washington, he didn’t receive a chance to play shorthanded. Now he’s one of the Capitals’ biggest assets.
“He’s a really smart two-way player,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said. “It strikes me odd that he never really got a chance there either. I can’t see it being from anything that he’s deficient at, because he’s somebody that we would have on the ice when it comes to win a game.”
Sheary said he takes pride in being stout on the penalty kill, and he’s learning the ins and outs of the unit with help from other penalty-kill specialists, such as Hagelin.
“I definitely have a lot more respect for the guys that have done it a lot longer than I have,” Sheary said. “I think it is a good thing. I think if I can add that to my arsenal and be successful in that area, it can help me, and I’ve enjoyed it so far.”