PITTSBURGH -- When the Pittsburgh Penguins recalled forward Conor Sheary last season, it was out of necessity.
Fourteen months after his NHL debut, Sheary is one of Pittsburgh's more valuable offensive assets, averaging close to a point per game skating to the left of center Sidney Crosby. That transition didn't happen overnight, but has been eye-opening.
Just ask Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.
"Conor might be the most improved player in my tenure," Sullivan said. "He's an impact player. He plays in a top-six role. What does he have? Twenty-one goals? What's impressive about that is I think he has 21 goals, I think 20 of them are 5-on-5. So, the impact he makes at even strength, I think gets unnoticed.
"He's one of our leading goal scorers 5-on-5 all year long. So, I think that speaks to the influence he's had on our team and helping us win. I think with each game that he plays, he just gets that much more comfortable. I think he's just that much more confident. I think, as quick as he is, I think he's picked up a half a step by playing with Sid for as long as he has now at this point."
Video: PIT@BUF: Sheary's wrister finds twine off defender
In his second NHL season, Sheary has 50 points (21 points, 29 goals) in 55 games. He had 10 points (seven goals, three assists) in 44 games as a rookie last season.
Sheary is expected to be in the lineup when the Penguins face the Chicago Blackhawks at PPG Paints Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) in a Wednesday Night Rivalry game.
Sheary is day to day with a lower-body injury sustained after playing 3:56 against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. He practiced Tuesday on a line with Crosby and right wing Bryan Rust.
As the Penguins injury list continues to grow, Sheary's health becomes increasingly important.
Pittsburgh already is without forwards Evgeni Malkin (upper body), Jake Guentzel (concussion), Carl Hagelin (lower body) and Tom Sestito (upper body). That's without mentioning the five defensemen the Penguins are missing, including defensive leader Kris Letang (upper body).
"It'll be nice to see guys kind of filter back into the lineup," Sheary said. "I think we've had a lot of guys step up into big roles and elevated roles, and have a chance to prove themselves. At the same time, I think it's good to see familiar faces back in the lineup."
Without those pieces, particularly Malkin, Pittsburgh has become more reliant on its top line, spearheaded by Crosby and his 24-year-old sidekick. Before his injury Sunday, Sheary had seven points (one goal, six assists) in his previous five games, each with Malkin sidelined.
Each of Sheary's six assists during that span came on a Crosby goal, which helped extend the Penguins captain's NHL-leading goal total to 42.
Video: NYI@PIT: Crosby buries a rebound from tough angle
"I think one of our strengths is our depth," Sheary said. "Me being part of that is one thing, but I don't think I'm relied on too much."
Sullivan coached Sheary with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League before taking over as Penguins coach. Four days after Sullivan arrived in Pittsburgh, Sheary joined him and made his NHL debut against the Boston Bruins on Dec. 16, 2015.
Sheary didn't score on any of his 24 shifts in that game, but did two days later, when he had a goal and an assist the first time he skated next to Crosby, again against Boston.
That was a glimpse of what was to come, but for the rest of last season, Sheary was a serviceable rookie who added much-needed depth to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
A year later, Sheary is a mainstay on the top line. In order to stake a claim to that position, especially playing a demanding role next to Crosby, he had to possess much more than his defining speed, which Rust attested to.
Video: PIT@CGY: Sheary scores off a quick passing play
Rust, who has replaced Guentzel as Pittsburgh's top-line right wing, played 14 games in 2014-15 but, like Sheary, received his first substantial amount of time in the NHL last season. After spending most of October 2015 in Pittsburgh, Rust was sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for two months before being recalled in early January.
From their time together in the AHL until now, Rust has noticed Sheary's improvement into an all-around NHL forward.
"He's been kind of going up and up and up, and getting a lot more confidence and making more plays," Rust said. "It's showing with who he's playing with, how many points he's getting and how effective he is on the ice. I think that's just a testament to him and how hard he works, and how much he pays attention to those little details."
Sheary perceives his development as a natural result of playing in the NHL.
"I think just as games go by and as you get more experience, I think you get a little more comfortable," Sheary said. "You're able to play your own game as much as you can. When you first get called up, you're a little hesitant to do certain things. At this point, I'm pretty comfortable with where my game's at."