A casual observer of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish might not pay much attention to Riley Sheahan. He’s not flashy, doesn’t look fast, and isn’t yet lighting up the score sheet. He has a decent, but modest, five goals and nine assists in 23 games.
But Sheahan is one of the youngest college freshmen in the country, having just turned 18 in December. And he’s good. Really good.
Notre Dame had an easy time recruiting the player. Sheahan, an Irish Catholic, grew up wanting to play at Notre Dame. His second cousin Brock Sheahan had played there two years ago.
Sheahan made a big jump up to college hockey from his hometown St. Catherine’s of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (Golden Horseshoe Division), which is at the junior B level. There he had 27 goals and 46 assists in 40 games last year, and was the leading scorer on the team for the second season.
But despite his background, Sheahan slid right into the Notre Dame line-up and contributed.
"He’s a very smart player," said Ryan Thang, a Nashville Predators draft pick who is captain of the Fighting Irish. "He’s really young, but he understands the game like a veteran. Coach (Jeff Jackson) has given him a lot of responsibility and he’s handled it perfectly. If you’re understanding the game you’re going to get time on the power play and penalty kill, and Riley is.
"He’s a really skilled guy with great vision. I’d definitely characterize him as more of the playmaker. He looks for the pass first, but he can definitely finish."
Thang, a senior, is four-and-a-half years older than Sheahan, so there’s an age gap. Naturally some on the team find ways to tease him because he’s so young.
"We give him a hard time about that, but at the same time, he’s just a great kid off the ice and a pleasure to play hockey with," Thang said.
Fresh off the homestead, Sheahan comes across as younger than other draft-eligible players. The veteran players reached out to help him when he struggled with homesickness this summer during a six-week session.
"Going to summer school, being away from home for the first time, all the guys, not just the seniors, were all really good," Sheahan told Hockey’s Future. "It’s comfortable being around them."
Moving away from home this year and the homesickness that has come with it has been so difficult that Sheahan said it’s the most adversity he’s faced yet in his hockey career.
"I had played at home my whole life, lived at home, went to school with all my friends at home," Sheahan explained.
But his parents have been supportive during his transition. His father, Mike Sheahan, has attended every Irish game except for those in Alaska.
"He’s still young," Thang noted. "He’s still getting accustomed to the busy schedule, of the school load and being on your own away from home and stuff like that. Most kids his age are still playing junior hockey, still in high school. He’s made big strides since he came in this summer. Just like anyone, it’s an adjustment being away from home for the first time and growing up and taking care of yourself. It’s tough being a student-athlete, especially at Notre Dame."
Asked what part of Sheahan’s game has improved the most of the course of the year, Thang said "I think his ability to make plays under the speed of college hockey. He was playing junior B hockey, which isn’t the best hockey. It was definitely a step up for him."
Self-analyzing his improvement Sheahan said, "I think my confidence level has gone up a bit. At first I was a little hesitant to make moves with the puck, and take chances to create a scoring chance. And I got a little bit bigger and stronger so I could compete with these bigger, stronger players."
The 6’2 center dropped a bit of weight at the beginning of the year, but gained it back as muscle, so he still weighs just under 200, but it’s a more muscular 200.
"I’m eating a lot healthier so I think my fitness is up a bit," Sheahan said. "That helps a lot."
Asked which NHLer he would compare Sheahan to, Thang said, “Off the top of my head I would say Rick Nash a little bit. He’s a bigger guy, not a huge power forward but has got great vision, likes to go to the net, can shoot the puck and score but can make plays as well."
Sheahan has something else in common with Nash when he was still playing junior — he doesn’t look like he’s doing much on the ice. It’s just so effortless for him that it fools you. Thang agreed with this assessment.
"Yeah, Riley if you look at him it doesn’t look like he’s working that hard but he’s really effective on the ice when he gets the puck. Smooth strides, doesn’t look like he’s going that fast, but then he’ll blow by you."
Sheahan is so skilled that even his mistakes look good. In a recent game, he came in hard on the goalie and then just tucked it in five-hole. It looked like a slick off-speed goal, but he said he didn’t intend that result.
"No," he said laughing. "I meant to go high blocker, but I kind of just fanned on it and got lucky. I’m glad it looked like that, but it wasn’t what I meant to do."
Scoring on his first ever collegiate shot, Sheahan continues to show soft hands. And this despite shattering one of them in a hockey fight last season, something rather out of character for the mild-mannered forward.
"I’ve still got six plates and a pin in there," he said, pointing to the top of his hand.
Centering the third line with Thang and Ben Ryan (NAS), Sheahan has the opportunity to show how good he is both offensively and defensively. He got an even better opportunity on defense when the Irish turned to the Torpedo system of four forwards and one defenseman on Dec. 11 and 13 when they had just three healthy defensemen.
"Yeah, that was really different," Sheahan said. "Especially against Michigan, one of the better teams. It was another adjustment period, something I’m not used to."
But he added he’d be glad to do it again.
One of the best college defenders in the nation, Ian Cole, who watched him from the stands due to a concussion, gave a thumbs up to Sheahan’s go-around at defense.
"He did a good job," the junior said later.
Even when the center is not assigned to defense, Sheahan comes back and helps the defense a lot.
"Well in order to be offensive, you have to get the puck first," Sheahan reasons. "So, defense zone is just as important as offensive zone. Everyone loves scoring goals, but you have to get the puck first."
Sheahan has been on the power play since the very first game of the season, but was recently moved to the point.
"I played on the point last year, so I’m pretty comfortable there," Sheahan said. "Wherever coach wants to put me on the power play I’m glad to play."
It’s hard to name a weakness on Sheahan, but the humble 18-year-old was able to come up with one right away.
"Right now I’m struggling winning faceoffs," he said. "I’ve been talking to the coaches about it. In order to put me out there, they have to be confident that I’m going to win possession. So I have to work on my faceoffs and then be a little more consistent every shift, try to make something happen. At the beginning of the year I was doing alright in the faceoff circle, and now I’m sort of struggling so I’m doing extra faceoffs after practice. Hopefully it will turn around."
Sheahan said he is also working on "just trying to get my head on straight and not get big-headed and let this hockey thing make me cocky."
Having been ranked fifth among North American skaters by Central Scouting in the mid-terms, there will surely be a little more attention on Sheahan between now and June.
But the effect may be a good one, as when he is fully confident in his abilities, his game will probably take off even more.