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Sheahan eager for fresh start with Penguins

Forward ready to begin next chapter after trade from Red Wings

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Riley Sheahan looked around and laughed.

"I think this is my stall," he said.

Behind him hung a generic nameplate that said "PENGUINS," because he had just gotten there. To his right was Phil Kessel. To his left, Sidney Crosby.

Surreal, to say the least.

Sheahan went 79 games without a goal for the Detroit Red Wings last season before scoring twice in the final game at Joe Louis Arena, a 4-1 win against the New Jersey Devils on April 9. He was minus-29, ranking 768th among 772 skaters. The Red Wings missed the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He had no points and an even rating in eight games for the Red Wings this season.

Then, while he was grocery shopping Saturday, his phone buzzed: The Red Wings had traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward Scott Wilson, clearing salary-cap space for forward Andreas Athanasiou, who had agreed to a one-year contract as a restricted free agent. The Red Wings also acquired a 2018 third-round pick for a 2018 fifth-round selection.

Video: NJD@DET: Sheahan nets second, last goal at The Joe

Next thing he knew, he was packing up, and he, his girlfriend and his dog were driving to Pittsburgh. He met some of his new teammates Sunday night and practiced with them for the first time Monday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

Suddenly he's the third-line center on the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, skating between Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist, doing battle drills against Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"I was in awe," Sheahan said. "I've never seen them up that close, other than playing [against them]. You don't get to see their true, true work ethic. It comes out in practice, and it was amazing."

This is what Sheahan needed, and maybe what the Penguins needed too.

Sheahan is better than he looked the last season-plus in Detroit. He was a first-round pick (No. 21) in the 2010 NHL Draft. He scored nine goals in 42 games for the Red Wings in 2013-14, 13 in 79 games for them in 2014-15 and 14 in 81 games for them in 2015-16.

His funk last season was extraordinary. He failed to score on 106 shots in his first 79 games. One hundred six shots. Had he failed to score in the finale, he would have become the first forward in NHL history with no goals and at least 100 shots in a season.

It's hard to say he didn't have opportunity. He averaged 1:07 on the power play. But he couldn't get a bounce, and bad luck spiraled into self-doubt, and kept spiraling and spiraling. He was behind Henrik Zetterberg, Dylan Larkin and Frans Nielsen on the depth chart at even strength.

"It's tough to leave those guys," said Sheahan, who spent more than five seasons in the Red Wings organization. "But I think from a hockey standpoint, I needed a change of scenery. Things weren't really working out there."

The Penguins needed a third-line center after Nick Bonino signed a four-year, $16.4 million contract with the Nashville Predators as a free agent July 1.

Video: NJD@DET: Sheahan roofs first goal of the season

With Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and company, they don't need a lot of offense from Sheahan. They need him to use his 6-foot-3, 214-pound body and to play well defensively. He will kill penalties immediately.

But there is no reason why Sheahan can't chip in offensively like he used to, especially playing higher in the lineup with players like Hagelin and Hornqvist. He shot 1.8 percent last season. He shot 10.6 in 2014-15 and 10.9 in 2015-16.

"Obviously last year was an anomaly that you don't score at all," Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "He had lots of chances. But I think he'll be a good … I told him this going back to last year. He's going to be a good NHL player for a long time."

Said Zetterberg: "He has all the abilities to be a good player and produce more."

He just has to clear his head and regain his confidence.

Defenseman Justin Schultz felt so low after being booed in his last game with the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 23, 2016, when he was minus-3 in a 4-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators, he said he wanted to crawl in a hole. He was traded to the Penguins and became a key part of two Stanley Cup winners. Same player. Different circumstances.

Could something similar happen with Sheahan?

"One hundred percent," said Penguins defenseman Ian Cole, who played with Sheahan at Notre Dame in 2009-10. "Everybody goes through tough stretches, and he went through an extended tough stretch. But he's still a really good hockey player.

"He's big. He can skate. He's got skills. He's a great PK guy, great shutdown third-line center guy. It'll be a huge asset for us to rely on him on [defensive]-zone draws, defensive situations. He's so solid defensively and just really smart. I think that's something that he'll certainly help us with for sure."

As he sat in his stall after practice Monday, Sheahan had so much nervous energy, he kept tapping his left foot, whether he knew it or not.

"Coming to the rink, it's just a different feeling," Sheahan said. "I think change is good for me right now, and I'm really excited."

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