Penguins’ Prelude: Rust, Sheary & the Top-6 Debate

Soon the World Cup of Hockey will end, and the NHL will resume operation. The Penguins will finish a very short offseason, and begin the difficult task of repeating as champions.

Before the season starts, THW will have a preview of the Penguins’ 2016-17 season. But before we get into the nuts and bolts of the next campaign, let’s take a bit of an informal approach on some topics that deserve discussion. I will be breaking this “prelude” into multiple pieces so as to give each topic the time that they deserve. I have not quite decided how many pieces yet, as I will be reaching out to social media for any questions, so let’s see how it flows.

Are Rust and Sheary Top-Six Material?

When I posed this question on Twitter, a follower of mine was kind enough to point out that the Penguins don’t have a top-six, but a top-nine. So the more appropriate question might be, are Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary worthy of playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?

Firstly, given the current roster, the Penguins really need Rust and Sheary to continue in the roles that they had during the playoffs alongside the superstars. If you believe the armchair coaches and the “inevitable” drop in play occur with Rust, Sheary and Nick Bonino, Pittsburgh’s lines would look something like this.

Kunitz – Crosby – Hornqvist
Hagelin – Malkin – Kessel
Sheary – Bonino – Rust
Kuhnhackl – Cullen – Fehr

This hampers the Penguins’ ability to roll out three lines capable of scoring and possessing the puck as effectively as they did last season. However, much depends on the play of a healthy Scott Wilson, as he may end up being the better of the Wilkes-Barre players called up last season.

Sheary – Crosby – Hornqvist
Kunitz – Malkin – Wilson
Hagelin – Bonino – Kessel
Kuhnhackl – Cullen – Rust

The above might end up being the better lineup, depending on Wilson’s play. Eric Fehr ends up being the odd man out unless he can bounce back from a less-than-stellar first season in Pittsburgh. Wilson is a left wing by trade, but there have to be some concessions.

The Proof Is in the Pudding

Sheary had some nice chemistry with Crosby, and there is no reason to believe that this would not continue. He has a great hockey I.Q. and deserves the opportunity to prove that he belongs. Last season, Sheary had the team’s second-best possession numbers (57.66 CF%) during the regular season and the third best (56.64 CF%) during the playoffs.

Rust fits in nicely with the Penguins’ speed game, but time will tell if keeping him with Malkin is what is best for the team in the long term. His game may have evolved more during last season than any other player. Early on he was a speedy, hard-working player that couldn’t capitalize on the goal opportunities that his game provided him. Late in the season, he started to bury the chances that he was getting. Who is to say that his rise won’t continue?

Pittsburgh has some nice depth with Wilson, Oskar Sundqvist and maybe even Jake Guentzel being available to step in. Sheary and Rust should get the first crack to maintain their roles, and they may continue their success, but if either should falter, there are options.

The Verdict

So are Rust and Sheary long-term top-six (or nine) forwards? Yes. Maybe. Probably. Who knows?

Even though the Penguins played a ton of hockey last year, the sample size for the players in question is still too small. The best answer is that time will tell.

Keep checking THW for this mini “prelude” series. I intend to include multiple topics per installment, but I got a bit long-winded on this subject. If there is anything that you would like me to touch on prior to the official team preview, please let me know in the comments below.