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Where will Lightning’s Conor Sheary fit in upon his return?

The versatile forward was starting to find his groove with Tampa Bay before a hand injury sidelined him for the past month.
 
Conor Sheary versatility is a plus for the Lightning, who likely can slot him in anywhere once he's back from injury.
Conor Sheary versatility is a plus for the Lightning, who likely can slot him in anywhere once he's back from injury. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 8, 2023

NASHVILLE — It took a while for Conor Sheary to feel comfortable with the Lightning. And right as he started to settle in with his new team, a left hand injury has kept him out of the lineup for the past month.

After practicing with teammates for the first time since the injury Thursday morning, Sheary’s return appears to be on the horizon. He had been skating on his own, but joined the Lightning for their season-long five-game, 10-day road trip with the hope that he’ll be able to play at some point.

“I think that’s the goal,” Sheary said. “I don’t have a game circled or anything like that. At this point, I think it’s more day-to-day than it is the four- to six-week (timetable). It’s just kind of how I feel coming out in the morning and on the ice.

“Each day gets better, so that’s the good news for me.”

Sheary, 31, has been a sort of enigma in his brief time with the Lightning. In the offseason, the Lightning signed him to a three-year, $2 million average annual value contract with the vision that he’d help the team get better defensively and protect leads. Sheary’s deal was the only multi-year one and the largest financial commitment given to any of the team’s offseason free-agent additions.

He came to the Lightning with the reputation of being a player who could skate on any line. He’s played with stars, skating with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin early on in his career in Pittsburgh, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in his first two years in the league. Most recently, he skated with Alexander Ovechkin in Washington. But Sheary also has fit in well on matchup and checking lines with his speed and forechecking ability.

But he struggled initially to find his place with the Lightning. Four games into the season, Sheary was already a minus-6; nine games into the season, he was still searching for his first goal.

He started to find his footing on a line with center Nick Paul and wing Steven Stamkos. He scored in Game No. 10 in Columbus, and the trio began to jell into one of the Lightning’s top lines establishing zone time. In a 6-4 win in Ottawa on Nov. 4, Sheary logged a season-high 15:23 of ice time and his line outchanced the opposition 17-9.

Two games later, just 34 seconds into his first shift of the Lightning’s win in Montreal on Nov. 7, Sheary took a blocked shot to his left hand and didn’t return. Within the next few days, he was placed on injured reserve.

“I scored my first goal a couple of games right before, which obviously gives me confidence, and I was playing on a line that I felt comfortable with and we started to create some chemistry so the timing of it was definitely unfortunate,” he said. “But knowing that I have that is an important thing to look back on and draw from. That doesn’t just disappear overnight. So hopefully when I do get back in there, it’ll just kind of be a smooth transition.”

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Sheary’s return likely would mean that forward Cole Koepke, the team’s only waiver-exempt forward, would return to AHL Syracuse. But where Sheary now fits in the line mix is unknown. Since he was sidelined, Stamkos has moved to the top line with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. Paul is now centering a line with Tanner Jeannot and Mikey Eyssimont that has shown promise.

First, Sheary will have to get used to new equipment. He’s had his left thumb heavily wrapped during his recovery, so he is practicing with protection there under his glove.

“I’m just trying to work back into it,” he said. “This long road trip, I think it was important for me to be around the guys and eventually hopefully jump back into practice, but (Thursday) was a good step towards that.”

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