Third Wheels, from Conor Sheary to Vlad Namestnikov
Lamenting the complementary players on top lines
There is a fine line between finding the right linemates for your star players and not galaxy braining it by over-thinking the whole process. Most teams have been able to get by with putting their best players together & letting the process work itself out. The Penguins have been the ultimate case study for finding the “right mix” of players for Sidney Crosby’s line & one of my favorite recent examples here is Conor Sheary.
Sheary was an undersized, undrafted player who turned a call-up into a two-year stint with the Penguins, predominately playing on Crosby’s left wing. He was similar to the Chris Kunitz types who had occupied this spot before because his calling card was getting to the slot or the areas in front of the net to convert on the scoring chances you’re going to get when playing on Crosby’s line. However, he was a little different than the Dupuis/Hornqvist types because he wasn’t the gritty type of player who would win battles along the boards or get pucks deep for Crosby to retrieve. He served as a complement to Crosby because he could shadow him in the neutral zone as a passing option & give his line a speed component that opposing team’s had to respect. Basically he was the guy
Pittsburgh has since moved on from Sheary & other mid to late round players like Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel & Dominik Simon have gone onto find varying degrees of success while rotating on and off Crosby’s wings. That said, I always had an appreciation for these complementary-type players even if they aren’t the ones driving the bus. There was something to be said about having that player who could at least take advantage of the opportunity given. Also for the players who will consistently create chances while seeing their goal production go through the peaks and valleys of shooting percentage regression. Sheary was an interesting case study for both sides of this.
He didn’t produce points off the hop in his first year, but he was given a spot on Crosby’s left wing in the playoffs, which he kept into the 2016-17 season. What followed was a career, 23-goal season followed by a slightly disappointing 18-goal campaign the following year. His ability to both create & be on the receiving end of high-danger passing plays stood out to me. I didn’t think it was a two-way street, but I thought he could be the type of player who could at least contribute with your star player without dragging them down. He was always one of those “right spot, right time” type of players in Pittsburgh. This goal is a good summary.
He’s alright folks.
If he wasn’t the one entering the zone, he was either shadowing Crosby in the neutral zone for easy zone entries or anticipating where the play was going so he could vulture a goal or an assist. It’s not a knock on him as a player because every good line needs someone like this. Think about how many times you saw someone on your favorite team make a perfect pass across the slot to nobody. Sheary wasn’t Marian Hossa, but he was a guy with some speed & raw puck skill who could make the final couple of plays to create a scoring chance. There’s a ceiling with these players, though. Eventually other teams figure that they have a limited number of tricks up their sleeve. That or they get traded away because they’re not the drivers of their line and you can find someone in your farm system or half the cost to do the same thing.
Sheary had a little of both happen to him. He was traded to Buffalo with the intention being that he was propped up by Crosby but could feed off Eichel the same way. The problem was he didn’t get Eichel as his center & was left with a hodgepodge of players that the Sabres attempted to create a second line out of. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has gotten two great seasons out of Jake Guentzel with Bryan Rust also having two productive seasons. It looks like Pittsburgh made the right call at the end of the day & the stats paint a similar story.
High Danger Passing Plays & Shots
Data is tracked by me (based off Ryan Stimson’s passing project)
Basically, this shows how involved a player is in creating “high danger passing plays,” which are passes that travel across the slot or come from behind the net. Essentially showing how many "easy” plays he was involved in creating and finishing. It’s not perfect, but it gives you an idea of who is creating space & taking advantage of it. Take note of how Sheary’s numbers dipped in Buffalo and immediately shot back up after he was traded back to Pittsburgh. What’s interesting is that his overall numbers stayed relatively the same in Buffalo.
Sheary was just as effective at producing shots & finding open teammates in Buffalo as he was during hi two full seasons in Pittsburgh. The high-end component to his game just vanished he went from playing with Crosby to Casey Mittelstadt, Vladimir Sobotka, Evan Rodrigues, Marcus Johansson and well…you get the picture. The Sabres also were usually on the better end of the shot & scoring chance battle while he was on the ice, as well. He just didn’t put up the individual numbers they were hoping for, which is why he found his way back to Pittsburgh (and why he is currently unsigned).
It’s not a surprise to see his production go down, but the skill was still there. It’s just tougher to translate those entries & shots into goals when you’re the guy driving the line instead of just the third wheel. It’s a lot like one of his linemates in Buffalo, Marcus Johansson. In a vacuum, his stats are pretty good. Great on zone entries, lots of shot assists, many of which being of the “high danger” variety discussed earlier. It’s just that they’ve always been able to use those skills when they have time & space rather than creating it on their own. Sheary has been able to adapt his game to fit lower in the lineup, but this goes with setting reasonable expectations. When you look at some of his goals in Buffalo, it’s also interesting to see how they were scored.
How many of those goals were off the rush? Compare it to some of his goals in Pittsburgh and you’ll notice a difference. He scored off the rush in Pittsburgh, but there was also more plays with sustained offense & him getting lost in coverage rather than striking quickly off the rush.
With Buffalo, he was paired with centers whose main trick is carrying the puck in & making a quick play. Those opportunities are limited in a 60 minute game, especially with how much emphasis there is on defending the rush now so it essentially ends up being a wasted possession when it doesn’t work. He did spend a decent chunk of time with Sam Reinhart, a player who is very good at keeping play in the offensive zone, but his linemates were pretty jumbled overall and I wonder how much of it had to do with the Sabres putting their eggs in one basket with hoping guys like Mittelstadt & Johansson can drive play.
If you’re team is looking to sign him, what would you consider a good season? Do you need 20 goals from him or are you happy with 30-some points while he spells on your top line? His first year in Buffalo was kind of like that if you ignore the weak point production. He never killed any line he was on, but the complementary type of game he plays doesn’t work as well when you’re stuck with players who can’t get the puck into high danger areas or win the puck in the defensive zone to start rushes. It’s part of the reason why Jake Guentzel broke into the next tier instead of just being one of Crosby’s sidekicks.
Guentzel has a lot of Sheary-esque goals where he’s benefitting from great plays from Crosby, but there’s more plays where he’s “creating his own shot” if you will rather than relying on a linemate to create space for him. That and his numbers have always been a shade above Sheary’s since he entered the league. Guentzel goes to the well of relying on great passing plays, he’s just been better at generating them than most of Crosby or Malkin’s linemates. Granted, he’s never played outside of the Pittsburgh cocoon that turns every player into a goal-scorer. Still, Guentzel’s been a pretty well-rounded player when it comes to how he creates offense.
He came into the league as a pass-first player and has since become more of a shooter, which meshes perfectly with Pittsburgh’s two star centers, who are still among the top playmakers in the league. Guentzel is likely in more of the Kyle Palmieri mold, where he doesn’t need great linemates to score, but you’re in for great results when you do pair them together. What also separates the two is that Guentzel has flanked both Crosby & Malkin over his career while Sheary’s mostly played with the former. Being Malkin’s winger is completely different from Crosby because while you’re getting scoring opportunities, you have to work for your goals a little more on Malkin’s wing. The best I can do is illustrate it here.
Over four years of tracked data, Crosby has created more plays from behind the net or passes that cross the slot than almost anyone in the league. Which means that those on the receiving end of those passes are going to be in a great position to create a scoring chance. With Malkin, you’re more likely to get the puck in space and beat a defender 1v1 instead of getting a gimmie chance (although you’ll get plenty of those too). Perhaps this is why Guentzel and Bryan Rust have been able to go back and forth on these lines while Sheary was just Crosby or bust. Rust never put up the numbers Guentzel did until this year, but I do see the similarities in how they create offense. Maybe it’s easier to read the play on Crosby’s line compared to Malkin’s where you’re you’re getting the puck on more give-and-go types of plays instead of making a quick one-timer or a pass? It does speak more to Guentzel’s ability because he has been a good goal-scorer without the need for high-danger passing plays.
Rust is a little tougher to figure out because he’s had the same linemates for most of his Pittsburgh career and his numbers never took off until this most recent season. He’s the perfect player for this topic because fans are generally happy with what he brings even in down years. You can do better on your top line, but he’s rarely going to do anything to drag down Crosby or Malkin, or at least not by the eye-test. His straight-ahead forechecking game also makes it easier to move him down the lineup when you need to. It’ll be interesting to see what Pittsburgh does when it comes time to pay him in a couple of years. They’ve kept guys like Kunitz, Dupuis & Hornqvist around for years and I wonder if Rust will fall into that group when his contract expires.
This does make me wonder how the whole Kasperi Kapanen experiment will turnout there, though. Pittsburgh’s had so much success with finding guys on Malkin’s wings and now they’re committed to two pretty expensive pieces with him & Jason Zucker. Perhaps this shows the limits on going to the well on these types of players, as the Penguins are coming off two disappointing playoff exits. I understand their desire to get better & Kapanen has the Rapidash-like speed that no one else on the roster can match. Did they need a top-end element or did they need someone like Vladislav Namestnikov, who will be lucky to break 35 points but will do all the little things like carrying the puck up the ice to make life easier for their defense & give their top lines another option for attacking off the rush? It’s a fair question.
As analysts, we tend to get wrapped up separating the players who make the engine run from those who are just along for the ride. I just wanted to show some love to those who are in the latter category. There’s always something to be said for players who can work with skill & have certain qualities to build off your star players. If they can work down the lineup & drive their own line, even better. It’s what the Oilers are hoping they get with Dominik Kahun and what the Hurricanes were searching for months before trading for Nino Niederreiter. Tampa Bay has had great success with finding & replacing these types of players through the draft & trades, which will get tested again with the salary cap looming. There is always going to be a place for your Alex Killorns and Ondrej Palats of the world.
Thanks for reading! Tell me who your favorite “third wheel” is and stay tuned for Sara’s post later this week!