Riley Sheahan type of weapon Penguins GM Jim Rutherford could acquire

March 14, 2018 GMT

Just in time for the trade deadline, Penguins third-line center Riley Sheahan is playing some of his best hockey in years.

As expected, he’s doing some of the dirty work that must be done on championship teams.

The Penguins have the NHL’s top-ranked penalty kill since Dec. 1, and Sheahan leads the team in short-handed ice time per game. He also leads the team and ranks in the top 20 in the league with a 55.7 winning percentage on faceoffs.

Unexpectedly, he’s doing some scoring, too.

Coming off a two-goal performance in a 5-2 victory Sunday at Columbus, Sheahan has nine points in his last 12 games. Evgeni Malkin leads the team in five-on-five points per 60 minutes of ice time. Phil Kessel is second. Sheahan is third, ahead of even Sidney Crosby.

Sheahan is providing everything general manager Jim Rutherford rightfully could have expected and more when he acquired the 26-year-old from the Detroit Red Wings in October.

So how much does that impact Rutherford’s strategy in the face of Monday’s approaching NHL trade deadline?

Not as much as you might think.

“I think he’s done a good job since he’s come here,” Rutherford said. “As he’s got adjusted since he’s been here, he’s got even better. He’s a very good player, but you need lots of good players to win in June. Anything I do has nothing to do with what I think of Riley. I’m glad we have him. He improved our position there, and he’s done a good job.”

On the surface, it looks like Rutherford has a simple decision to make before the deadline.

On one hand, he could give up significant assets and do the heavy lifting required to clear salary cap space to acquire a potentially difference-making third-line center like Ottawa’s Derick Brassard. That would bump Sheahan to the fourth line.

On the other hand, he could give up less-significant assets to pick up a complementary fourth-line center like Edmonton’s Mark Letestu, who probably would move the needle less. That would leave Sheahan in a third-line role.

The way Rutherford sees it, though, that’s an oversimplification.

“I used to look at it that way, where you slot guys in by how they’re paid and how you justify it and everything. But the way our team’s been structured the last couple of years, I don’t look at that anymore,” Rutherford said. “It’s more about balance and depth and the best way for us to win.”

A good example to illustrate Rutherford’s point is Kessel.

Technically, when the Penguins write their lineup on the dry-erase board in the locker room, Kessel is the third-line right wing.

He doesn’t play like a third-line right wing, ranking in the top 10 in the league in scoring. He doesn’t get paid like a third-line right wing, making $8 million annually. He doesn’t even stay in the third-line right wing’s spot for the whole game, popping up onto Malkin’s line on a regular basis.

He’s a third-line right wing in name only.

It’s a virtual lock Rutherford will pick up another center before Monday’s deadline. His decision-making process, however, will be driven by weighing costs and benefits, not by trying to acquire a player who fits perfectly into a traditional third- or fourth-line mold.

He just will have to be another weapon at coach Mike Sullivan’s disposal.

“We may get somebody and put them on the fourth line. Or Riley may move to the wing. He’s played well on the wing at times when he’s been in Detroit,” Rutherford said. “The way Sully coaches, it’s really not all about third and fourth lines. It’s about how guys are used.”

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