When the Capitals set up the power play, you see plenty of familiar faces on the ice such as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson. But there is one player who causes more head-scratching than any other. Conor Sheary is a very dynamic player who contributes a lot of different things for Washington, but he is not among the team's top offensive weapons.
On a team that doesn't lack offensive skill, why has Sheary become a fixture on the Capitals' power play?
In terms of overall playing time on the power play, only Ovechkin, Carlson, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson have spent more time on the ice overall on the man advantage for Washington than Sheary. Per game, he is averaging 2:27 of ice time on the power play. That's more time than Lars Eller averages by a full minute. It's also more than Daniel Sprong and Connor McMichael, two other forwards most people would consider more adept at scoring than Sheary.
It's easy to dismiss Sheary's role on the power play as a product of injuries. With Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha out injured, plus Eller in COVID protocol, someone has to play the power play. But Sheary did not simply back into the role. In fact, he had already replaced Mantha before Mantha's injury.
"[Sheary] can do a lot of different things," Carlson said in October of Sheary on the power play. "I think he helps a lot on the breakouts and certainly has an eye to find guys all over the ice. He's done it a lot before in his career. We feel like he's a really good piece to shake things up and make some stuff happen."
The bottom line is that Sheary was not added to the power play because of a lack of options for head coach Peter Laviolette. He was added mainly for one specific purpose: puck retrieval. Sheary's main role is to play net front and to retrieve loose pucks in the corners from shots and rebounds.
"If I can do my best to retrieve pucks, take the goalie's eyes away and do the corner work, I think that's what I bring best," Sheary said.
While players like Sprong and McMichael may be more skilled, Sheary is one of the best players on the team in terms of puck battles and retrieval. He will battle and win loose pucks about as well as anyone on the roster.
Washington's power play has, overall, not been very good this season. Through 17 games, the Caps are producing at a rate of only 17.0%, good for 23rd in the NHL. It's easy to point to Sheary, a player with only one 20-goal season in his career back in 2016-17, as part of the problem. But he's not.
One of the biggest issues for Washington on the power play is on zone entries. They just are not good at getting the puck into the offensive zone. They run the drop pass far too slowly to be effective and the opposing penalty killers are either breaking up plays in the neutral zone or trapping the puck carrier at the blue line. It almost feels as if the first time the puck is cleared, the power play is essentially over because getting back into the offensive zone is such a struggle.
A good way to make sure you stay in the zone is to maintain possession of the puck and you do that with good puck retrieval. That's exactly the role Sheary plays so effectively.
"I thought Conor Sheary did an unbelievable job of just getting on pucks, lost faceoffs he was just tenacious in there retrieving pucks and allowed us to get set up," Laviolette said, raving of Sheary's efforts on the power play against after the team's win over the Arizona Coyotes.
An NHL power play is not set up like in a video game where you just pick the five best offensive players. Each player has a specific role. Sheary's role is retrieving the puck in order to help the team maintain possession. Maintaining possession means fewer zone entries which makes the power play better.
Said Carlson, "I think [Sheary's] just been strong and earned that spot."