Sheary comes up big for Pens

Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Conor Sheary (43) plays during an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (TNS) – Conor Sheary got overlooked by a lot of teams when he was in college.

And it wasn’t necessarily just because he stands 5 feet 8.

Sheary played for UMass-Amherst, which belongs to one of the college game’s most prominent conferences, Hockey East.

Trouble is, the Minutemen routinely end up at or near the bottom of the standings – they were 32-70-16 during Sheary’s four years – and are overshadowed by some of the league’s more successful programs.

“It’s a little harder to get noticed unless you’re playing a big-time school like [Boston University] or [Boston College],” Sheary said.

Penguins associate general manager Jason Botterill acknowledged that Sheary “wasn’t one of those guys who was over-scouted,” but that didn’t prevent Penguins personnel such as Tom Fitzgerald, Bill Guerin and Al Santilli from monitoring him.

The Penguins never drafted Sheary, but neither did any other club, and he opted to sign with them when his college eligibility was up.

“They pursued me the most,” he said. “They said they’d seen me a few times, so I felt most comfortable coming here.”

Sheary’s first contract was an amateur tryout agreement with the Penguins’ minor league team in Wilkes-Barre in 2014, and he accumulated 11 points in 15 playoff games – third most on the team – just weeks after leaving school.

Last spring, he led Wilkes-Barre with 12 points in eight postseason appearances.

“The bigger the game, the more he [elevated] his game,” Botterill said.

Sheary has 36 points in 30 games with the Baby Penguins this season, much of which he has spent commuting between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre.

He has five goals and two assists in 34 NHL games, and, while he doesn’t enjoy the occasional demotion, Sheary understands the role they can play in his development.

“Most important is to stay positive when you go down,” he said. “Don’t take it as a negative thing. I know I’m a young guy and I’m on my first contract.

“Once you come back up here, you just have to play with confidence and play your own game. If things go your way, they do. But, if not, it’s a process, and you have to embrace the process.”

Sheary has worked primarily in a bottom-six role with the Penguins, but has filled in on the top two lines several times.

“Right now, he’s more of a fourth-line player, but he’s a player who could go anywhere in our lineup,” Botterill said. “That versatility, being able to play on the right side or the left side, bodes very well for him in the future.”

While that future in the NHL still is far from secure, it’s a more realistic objective than Sheary realized when he left college. Only after competing in the American Hockey League did he realize that he could have a place in the NHL someday.

“Coming out of college, getting an AHL contract, I was super-excited,” he said. “I thought that was almost my limit, until I started playing and realized I could play with those guys.

“When I saw guys get the call-up [to the NHL] last season, I thought to myself, ‘This could be me, as well. I feel like I fit in there.’ ”

While Sheary’s size – he’s listed at 5-8, 175 pounds – hardly is a plus, he has developed the quickness and speed needed to compensate.

“We were always wondering if he had that extra step, that extra jump,” Botterill said. “He’s shown a lot more pace to his game than we ever anticipated. It’s now one of his assets.”

And people are starting to notice.