Riley Sheahan knew the challenges that awaited him in his inaugural season at the University of Notre Dame.
To his credit, he hasn't missed a beat.
"He surprised me with his ability to step in and contribute immediately," Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson told NHL.com. "He's been able to play in every situation since he started and that's kind of a rare thing for a guy like that. He came in here as a 17-year-old, and for him to be able to step into a game against 20- to 24-year-old players tells a lot about his patience and poise with the puck, and his accountability without it."
Sheahan is one season removed from posting 27 goals and 73 points playing junior B hockey with the St. Catharine's Falcons of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. He turned 18 on Dec. 7 and is regarded as the finest draft-eligible collegiate player in the nation. NHL Central Scouting has the St. Catharine's, Ont., native rated fifth among North American skaters on its midterm list of the best talent available for the 2010 Entry Draft.
"It's pretty cool that I'm getting that attention, and an honor, but at the same time it's only a midterm ranking and there's still a lot of work to be done so you can't get caught up in it," Sheahan said. "You have to sort build off that knowing the opportunities are there."
Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, who specializes in U.S. prospects, wouldn't be surprised to see Sheahan selected among the top 10 picks at this year's selection process in Los Angeles, June 25-26.
"He's so mature for a kid his age -- I'm overwhelmed with that," Barzee said. "The last time I watched him play I wrote a book on him. He's equally good in all three zones and goes to the front of the net. He's very conscious in the defensive zone and down behind the net in the defensive corner -- he makes certain his team isn't outnumbered. In the neutral zone he makes all kinds of things happen but will get back and turn a transition if needed."
Jackson hasn't coddled his prized recruit -- and for good reason. He's been a top-six forward, has seen time on the power play and has killed penalties.
"He's very close to the total package," Jackson said. "He's got all the assets you look for in a player. He's got great stick skills both offensively and defensively, and he understands the game so well. You don't have to tell him anything twice and a lot of it comes naturally. In today's world, that's rare."
Jackson compared Sheahan to two special players he coached in the early 1990s at Lake Superior State -- Doug Weight and Bates Battaglia.
"He's got the instincts of Doug Weight, and from a defensive perspective he's got a defensive stick similar to Bates," Jackson said. "He knows when he can dangle and knows when he has to protect the puck. We've had issues with turnovers on our team this season, but Riley hasn't been one of the culprits. He's pretty smart and makes good decisions with the puck. He hasn't disappointed in any aspect of the game."
In 27 games with the Irish, he has 5 goals and 15 points. While Jackson has paired Sheahan with different linemates throughout the course of the season, senior captain Ryan Thang has been one constant on the left side.
"The seniors are great -- they don't put too much pressure on the guys," Sheahan said. "I feel I could do a little more. When I first came in I knew my point production would be harder to maintain than what I'm used to because I know this is more of a defensive-orientated game and harder to put points up. But I'm happy with the way I am right now."
And who could blame him? It was only two months ago that Sheahan, a 6-foot-1 1/2, 202-pound left-shooting center, was a tad overwhelmed.
"It was intimidating to see these guys with full-grown beards, almost 25-years-old, when I just had my 18th birthday," he said. "But once you step on the ice, your adrenaline gets going and everyone plays the game the same way. You just can't let it get to your head. It helps being big-bodied, but I know I still have a lot of weight to put on and muscle to gain."
Jackson said he would like to see Sheahan shoot a little more.
"I haven't used him at wing much, but he's such a good skater I probably could use him there," Jackson said. "I'd like him to shoot the puck more. I think he needs to get a little more physically engaged at times, but again, we're talking about a kid who just turned 18. I'm pretty happy with where he's at, at this point."
Sheahan said he's grateful to have Jackson as a mentor.
"He's taught me hockey skills and life skills," Sheahan said. "He's talked about being more responsible in organizing my time. He's definitely been a lot of help, and hockey-wise knows a ton about the game, so he's just given me the opportunity to improve each day. I'll be able to use a lot of what he's showing me later on in life."Contact Mike Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org