Riley Sheahan is the most interesting prospect in the Red Wings system right now. He plays a very mature brand of hockey that is unusual for a prospect. His unique skill set opens the door to change the way talent is evaluated.
Sheahan stands at 6’2″ and weighs 215 pounds. He was the Wings first(21st overall) selection in the 2010 draft. He played college hockey at Notre Dame where he became an elite shutdown center. Sheahan excels off the stat sheet, a main reason he is being so severely undervalued(up until his recent call-up where he has received a little bit more attention).
Forwards are generally classified into two different categories, top 6 and bottom 6, of course there are many different subsets of these classifications, but essentially top 6 players rely more on finesse and bottom 6 players are the more gritty and grinder types. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, think power forwards, like Alex Ovechkin. He is certainly a top line, elite player, but it would be really hard to say he is a graceful finesse player. Power forwards represent a break in the line between top and bottom 6. One could call a power forward a more skilled and glorified grinder. For this example think about Johan Franzen or Justin Abdelkader.
Sheahan can be a very good NHL center, but he is going to do it in a way that is extremely unique. He is not the kind of player who is going to light up the stat sheet. He is a player who is so good defensively and transitionally that he will be too good for bottom 6 duties. He is an elite forechecker and excels at winning puck battles.
Riley Sheahan is the kind of player who allows us to change the way we quantify and value talent. Generally speaking, players who don’t score don’t play top line minutes. However, Sheahan is the kind of player who can allow goals to occur without being directly involved in them. A good example of this is the kid line from last year. Brunner and Nyquist(Brunner especially) were players who possessed the ability to score goals, but were prone to missing assignments in the defensive zone, however Joakim Andersson, was their center and he was defensively responsible enough to allow both of these guys be more aggressive in the offensive zone. As dynamic as Brunner and Nyquist were, they could have been a train wreck if not for a steady defensively minded center. This is what Sheahan does, except his skill exceeds that of Andersson. Sheahan is good enough to be a top line center on a line with players like Nyquist and Mantha. Sheahan can essentially be the core of this line by driving possession through the defensive and neutral zone in order to create a high volume of scoring chances for these projected powerhouse offensive players. It is this kind of unique skill set which can change the makeup of scoring lines and make the Red Wings a very hard team to defend against.
Modern hockey philosophy essentially runs everything through the center. However, if we change the center’s role so that his entire job is secure possession and push it through the defensive and neutral zone, then passes the puck to his offensively minded and uber aggressive wingers, then we are talking about a blueprint in which the center essentially becomes a hybrid offensive defenseman, and two wingers who are always trying to get behind the defense and create havoc without the puck.
This is not to make Sheahan sound like some kind of unheralded prospect. He is just a player who has developed a unique skill set. Most prospects in his position are elite offensive players and have to develop both their bodies and their defensive game. Sheahan is the opposite, he is an average offensive player with an extremely developed body and an excellent defensive game. His career has a few different paths as predicted by various scouts, his projected spectrum is that he either develops an offensive game and learns to finish and becomes a top line center, or, becomes a strong 3rd line center who is talented enough to shut down other teams top lines, kills penalties, and becomes a very dependable player who gets hot occasionally and scores a few goals. Although one sounds better than the other, his projected floor is extremely high and Sheahan’s development is something that should be extremely interesting to every wings fan.