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Penguins

Versatile Riley Sheahan could determine Penguins' trade deadline direction

Jonathan Bombulie
| Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, 5:24 p.m.
Penguins center Riley Sheahan (left) attempts to skate around Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Jon Merrill during the second period Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Las Vegas.
Penguins center Riley Sheahan (left) attempts to skate around Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Jon Merrill during the second period Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Las Vegas.
Center Riley Sheahan has proved to be versatile during his short time with the Penguins.
Center Riley Sheahan has proved to be versatile during his short time with the Penguins.
The Penguins' Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his goal with Jake Guentzel and Riley Sheahan during the first period Friday, Feb. 2, 2018.
The Penguins' Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his goal with Jake Guentzel and Riley Sheahan during the first period Friday, Feb. 2, 2018.

Over the last few weeks, Penguins center Riley Sheahan could have looked around as the team lined up for a faceoff and surmised he was getting ready to play two completely different sports.

Lately, he's been centering the third line with left wing Jake Guentzel and right wing Phil Kessel, two of the faster players in the league, let alone the Penguins locker room. He must have felt like a member of a 400-meter relay team.

Last month, though, he spent a few games in between left wing Tom Kuhnhackl and Ryan Reaves, physical players who are the top two hitters on the team. He must have felt like a middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense.

In general, the fact Sheahan is comfortable playing on a skill line or a grind line is a feather in his cap.

“I think one of the greatest things Riley has brought to this team is his versatility and our ability to use him in different situations,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

In the coming weeks, however, the Penguins might be forced to make a decision about what kind of role they really want Sheahan to play. General manager Jim Rutherford's plans for the Feb. 26 trade deadline could depend on it.

Let's say the Penguins decide Sheahan is the type of center they want on a skilled third line. It's a reasonable position to take.

Sheahan is averaging 1.59 points per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time since joining the Penguins. That's not bad. It's better than Sidney Crosby (1.41), Bryan Rust (1.47) and Conor Sheary (1.45), for example, have averaged this season.

“Riley sees the ice pretty well,” Sullivan said. “He has good skills. He has good passing skills, and we can play him with skilled players. When we do play him with skilled players, we like his conscientious, 200-foot game. It's important to us to create the balance that we're looking for throughout our lineup.”

If Sheahan is anchored on the third line with Kessel, the Penguins could pursue a low-cost fourth-line center option like Edmonton's Mark Letestu or Minnesota's Matt Cullen or maybe just stick with Carter Rowney in the role and pursue roster upgrades elsewhere.

Now let's say the Penguins decide Sheahan doesn't have the offensive chops to play above the fourth line. There is evidence to back up that position, too.

Among players who have taken at least 300 faceoffs this season, Sheahan ranks 84th in scoring with 18 points. That's borderline third-line material. And he did, after all, go 80 games without a goal last season.

He has some aptitude in a checking role, so using him in that capacity might give the Penguins the best competitive advantage moving forward.

“He's a big guy himself,” Reaves said. “He does a great job playing that role.”

Should the Penguins decide Sheahan fits on the fourth line, they'd have to try to pry someone like Jean-Gabriel Pageau away from Ottawa to fill the third-line spot. That would be a more difficult and costly acquisition.

Ultimately, there is a compromise position to consider as well. The Penguins could decide Sheahan is a third and fourth-line tweener, then try to acquire another player who fills a similar spot on the depth chart, perhaps someone line Montreal's Tomas Plekanec.

They could then switch up their bottom-six combinations based on opponent and who's running hot or cold.

If that happens, Sheahan might keep alternating between his relay team and linebacking corps for the rest of the season.

He'd be OK with that.

“You don't really care who you play with,” Sheahan said. “You just try to bring whatever you can to the table. It's fun playing with all these guys. Nothing but good things.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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