When the Washington Capitals and General Manager Brian MacLellan scooped up Conor Sheary in unrestricted free agency back in December 2020, it was clear that the Capitals were looking for a bit of a reclamation project. After Sheary’s first three seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins from the 2015-16 season through the 2017-18 season, Sheary amassed 48 goals and 45 assists for 93 points in 184 games.
After his third season with the Penguins, he had fallen out of favor with the Penguins’ front office and coaching staff, and was traded to the Buffalo Sabres, alongside defenseman Matt Hunwick, in return for a 2019 4th round pick. Sheary never quite found his scoring in Buffalo, going from about a 0.5 points per game pace in Pittsburgh to .39 points per game in Buffalo. Buffalo then turned around and traded Sheary back to Pittsburgh alongside forward Evan Rodrigues in February 2020 for forward Dominik Kahun. After the trade back to Pittsburgh, Sheary played in eight games, scoring a goal and three assists.
It was clear that Sheary needed to find a new home after stints in Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The Capitals took a flyer on him, and got great value out of that signing over the course of two contracts: a one year deal that carried a $735k cap hit, and then a two year deal (that just expired) that carried a cap hit of $1.5M. Sheary amassed 48 goals and 54 assists for 102 points in 206 games with the Caps.
In this post, we’re going to evaluate Sheary’s performance this past season, with a lens of whether or not the Caps should try to bring Sheary back into the fold. The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Reference, and CapFriendly. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
First up, let’s take a look at the percentage performance Sheary turned in during the 2022-23 season:
We’ll get into the drivers of Sheary’s rather mediocre performance in possession metrics here in a moment, but the one key area where Sheary excelled was in his goals for percentage (GF%). With Sheary’s expected goals for percentage (xGF%) falling a bit under the 50% target line, we can see that Sheary was one of the few players on the Capitals that displayed finishing capabilities when on the ice during five-on-five play.
On the other hand, we have other data that shows that finishing wasn’t necessarily the driver of the net percentage difference between GF% and xGF%:
Above is a ranking of each key statistic out of 15 forwards on the Capitals that skated more than 200 minutes. What we can see here is an effective player in Sheary that can drive generation of Corsi For shot attempts per sixty minutes (CF/60), Fenwick For shot attempts per sixty minutes (FF/60), and overall shots on goal per sixty (SF/60). On the other hand, Sheary struggled with suppressing shot attempts against, which points to some complications, defensively.
The reason why I ended the explanation for the first graphic above with a point of data that shows that finishing wasn’t necessarily the reason why Sheary had a positive net differential between his GF% and xGF% is his on-ice save percentage when on the ice during five-on-five play. He was on the ice for a team-best (among forwards) save percentage by the Caps goalies, even with being in the bottom two in terms of rates for shot attempts and shots on goal.
In short, there’s a fairly decent chance that Sheary’s goals against per sixty (GA/60) was a bit inflated due to the high performance of the Caps’ goalies when Sheary was on the ice. On the other hand, Sheary was pretty dang effective offensively this season for a team that had a finishing rate drier than the Sahara Desert.
Now, let’s take a look at Sheary’s chance generation percentages, although we might have a good idea of what they’ll look like considering the rankings I shared above:
In terms of overall scoring chances for (SCF%), it wasn’t an issue with generating scoring chances, but an issue with defensive suppression of scoring chances against. That’s what’s driving his SCF% below that 50% target line.
Sheary was a bit more effective in terms of generation and suppression of high-danger chances for (HDCF%), which is what brings his HDCF% up slightly over that 50% target line.
Interestingly enough, his high-danger goals for percentage (HDGF%) is rather strong here, but that’s definitely being driven by the Caps’ on-ice save percentage when Sheary was on the ice.
Let’s take a look at Sheary’s isolated impact chart from HockeyViz. This shows what Sheary’s impact on xGF and xGA is during even-strength versus how the Caps perform with him off the ice:
The Caps are ever-so-slightly better offensively in terms of generating xGF/60 when Sheary is on the ice versus off, but we’re talking about .05 xGF/60, which isn’t moving the needle a ton. It’s considerably offset by his impact defensively, resulting in 5% higher xGA/60.
This isn’t necessarily surprising, given all we’ve written before this, but there was definitely some struggles defensively when Sheary was on the ice. Part of that is getting the majority of his ice time on a line with Alex Ovechkin, who certainly isn’t doing him any favors on the defensive end of the ice.
Now that we’ve mentioned linemates, let’s take a look at how Sheary performed with Ovechkin and Dylan Strome, with Strome but without Ovechkin, and Sheary without either Ovechkin or Strome on a line:
Sheary put in his best work in terms of these key metric percentages with Ovechkin and Strome. That’s not super surprising considering that line was the best offensive line that the Caps had throughout the season.
What concerns me the most is Sheary’s output without Strome or Ovechkin on his line. We see below average results in all the key categories, which makes you wonder if Sheary was just benefiting from playing with Strome and Ovechkin.
Let’s take a look at Sheary’s Rate-Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) for this past season:
To me, this really resonates with the data we’ve presented throughout this post. Sheary is still effective offensively, which you can see with his above replacement level performance in GF/60, xGF/60 and CF/60, but you can see a tremendous drop off in CA/60 and a sub-replacement level performance in xGA/60.
The concerning piece is just how poorly he performed defensively, and that can really offset his penchant for generating scoring chances offensively. The key to success in today’s NHL is balance: you can’t completely disregard the defensive side of the game and go 100% on offense, and vice-versa.
Goals Above Replacement
Let’s take a look at Sheary’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR) over the course of Sheary’s career:
Sheary has always been a valuable forward over the course of his career, coming in above replacement level every season since he debuted in the NHL back in the 2015-16 season. Interestingly enough, Sheary’s worst performance in xGAR came this past season, narrowly squeaking just above replacement value in that regard. What drives his value up this season is a 4.8 offensive GAR performance, but his -2.2 defensive value drives his overall value down a bit to that 3.5 level we see on the chart above.
I don’t think we’re magically going to see Sheary start posting positive values defensively unless the Caps could find two linemates for him that are not named Ovechkin or Strome.
Should the Caps re-sign Sheary
In an off-season where we could see significant change among the top six forward group for the Capitals, I’m not sure where Sheary fits in. With Wilson entering the 2023-24 season healthy, you’d have to expect that Wilson slots in on the top line with Strome and Ovechkin. If MacLellan achieves his goal for the off-season in acquiring two top six forwards, that group is effectively filled.
Sheary would be ideal for a third line role, but the Caps bottom six is chock full of potential players. You have to think the fourth line going into next season is carved into stone, with Aliaksei Protas, Nic Dowd, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel manning the shutdown line. The third line could potentially consist of T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Sonny Milano, or Connor McMichael.
Obviously, it’s hard to predict the line combinations ahead of a busy summer for MacLellan. With Evolving Hockey’s contract projection for Sheary (if he stays in Washington) at a 3 year deal with a cap hit of $3.346M, is Sheary a commodity you can afford with potentially two new top six forwards in the fray? I’m not quite sure there.
Now, if the Capitals can only bring one top six forward in via trade, I surely wouldn’t mind bringing back Sheary. But, Sheary could potentially net a new contract in unrestricted free agency that the Caps just aren’t willing to match.
By Justin Trudel