At the beginning of the 2021-22 season, the Washington Capitals needed an X-factor to emerge on offense. Luckily for them, Evgeny Kuznetsov started playing at the level he’s capable of playing again.
Two other names that needed to have good seasons were Anthony Mantha and Daniel Sprong. The former is on Injured Reserve after shoulder surgery and the latter isn’t having the impact that he had in 2020-21…yet.
The Capitals Need More From Daniel Sprong
Sprong, 24, was a surprise contributor last season, and it was mostly due to Alex Ovechkin being out of the lineup at times. He took advantage of his opportunity, registering 20 points (13 goals, seven assists) in 42 appearances in 2020-21. The winger signed a two-year, $1.45 million contract back on Sep. 18, 2020, and with his measly cap hit of $725,000, the Capitals thought they had a bargain heading into this season.
Sprong is a restricted free agent this summer, and because of his average play so far and the added pressure from rookies that have over-performed, he needs to step up more to be re-signed. Or he will be looking for his fourth NHL franchise already in his young career.
Sprong’s Tale of Two Seasons
There is no denying Sprong’s value last season. He recorded a point in 17 games, but five of said games were when Ovechkin wasn’t playing due to COVID-19 protocols and a later injury. Four of those five matches came at the end of the season and were part of a stretch where Sprong scored six goals in six games to help the Capitals maintain a playoff seed.
Sprong set career highs in assists, points, and plus-minus rating (plus-7) last season, and was one shy of tying his highest goal total from back in 2018-19 with the Anaheim Ducks. This season is telling a different story. Currently, the winger is on pace to finish with just 10 goals and 14 assists. He’s played in 24 of Washington’s 28 games, being a healthy scratch at times, and ranks 13th on the team in scoring and 19th among skaters in average time on ice (12:31).
Capitals’ Rookies on the Rise
One skater that has averaged a smidge more time on ice, including on the power play, is rookie Aliaksei Protas. The two have comparable goals-for per 60 minutes, but head coach Peter Laviolette is starting to gain more trust in Protas. In December alone, the 20-year old was on the ice minutes more than Sprong in two of the four games they were both on the roster.
Due to injuries to top-six talent, the rookies have had to step up out of necessity and have contributed when called upon. Along with Protas, Connor McMichael, Brett Leason, Garrett Pilon, Beck Malyenstyn, and Hendrix Lapierre have all shown they are capable of scoring at the NHL level. With defenseman Martin Fehervary also putting pucks past goalies, seven Capitals rookies have scored a goal in 2021-22 so far.
Sprong Controls his Fate
The question of Sprong’s value is now raised. His production hasn’t met expectations, but the excitement may have been exaggerated, to begin with. His impact last season was mostly proven while Ovechkin wasn’t available. Now that the captain is having an-MVP caliber season, it’s probably not a coincidence that role players such as Sprong haven’t found a solid groove.
The season is still young, however. There’s still time for the winger to work his magic, and he may be called upon later in the season during key stretches of the schedule. In 2020-21, he had three different point streaks.
The rookies are nipping at his blades though. If Sprong continues his average play, then paying him more than he’s worth over the summer just to retain a young forward may not be the best decision by general manager Brian MacLellan, especially when the rookies are proving they are capable of the same type of production.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
Carl greatly enjoys interacting with his audience (except trolls who he refuses to embarrass with a response). Please use the comment section at the bottom of every THW article, and also feel free to chat with and follow him on Twitter. For interview and feature requests, please visit his Muck Rack profile.