Coming off of back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, the Pittsburgh Penguins are flying high, but fans have been less than thrilled by their volatile season so far. When the Penguins are playing their game, pushing the tempo, and controlling play, they are still one of the best teams in the entire National Hockey League.
However, their depth has been depleted substantially throughout the last two Cup runs. The team watched centers Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen walk in free agency, and also saw Chris Kunitz and Scott Wilson depart within the last year. Most importantly, the team lost three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft.
The team still boasts some of the finest star power in the league with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on offense and they still have the extremely talented but streaky defensemen in Olli Maatta and Kris Letang. Where they are missing depth is within their bottom-six forward group, and, unsurprisingly, the team called prospect Daniel Sprong up from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins back around the turn of the calendar year.
Penguins Turned to Daniel Sprong for Scoring Help
Sprong, the Penguins second round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, is touted as one of their best prospects and has the attention of many around the league. It seems natural as in his brief tenure in the AHL, Sprong looks to be one of the better players on the Baby Penguins. He first joined their team during their 2015-16 playoff run where he contributed five goals and two assists in 10 games played.
This season, Sprong has maintained a point-per-game pace in the American League as he has 19 goals, 13 assists for 32 points, in 32 games played. The fit was logical – the Penguins were struggling to score and there is no denying Sprong’s lethal shooting ability.
During the 2017-2018 season, it took Pittsburgh just eight regular season games to see that Sprong, despite his torrid offensive production, is not ready for the NHL yet and needs some more time playing top-line minutes in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Sprong’s statistics from his brief stint looked good, eight games played, two goals, one assist and was a plus-two skater. His advanced metrics also looked stellar as the Penguins controlled 63.2% of shot attempts while he was on the ice.
What happened? Everything on paper looked to be trending in the right direction, Sprong seemed to fit into the team well and based on his AHL production, there is little about the offensive side of his game that he has yet to learn.
Daniel Sprong Remains an Incomplete Player
All three of his NHL points this season came from a single game, one where he skated alongside Crosby for the majority of the night. In the other seven games, he was held completely off the score sheet and his effort seemed lackluster.
During that game against the New York Islanders on Jan 5, fans overreacted to his breakout game and made bold proclamations like “the Penguins have finally found a winger for Sidney Crosby.”
However, Sprong’s supporters quickly faded away as in the next four games his average ice time fell and he was a non-factor in most games. The troublesome part is that this is not the first time the Penguins have seen this type of response from Sprong.
Upon his initial call-up to Pittsburgh during the 2015-16 season, while not evident on the score-sheet, Sprong was a breath of fresh air. He was pushing the pace of play and providing dynamic offensive scoring chances in his first few games, but this faded away.
Some argue that it was improper coaching that stifled his offensive production, but now, under another NHL head coach, Sprong has provided the same result. His initial burst and scoring touch are appreciated, but he quickly fades and still remains a liability in the defensive zone.
Patience Required With Sprong’s Development
The Penguins are not worried about this talented young player – they want to be patient with him, and will give him chances to shine. The sky is the limit for this dynamic sniper. But, make no mistake, the Pens are looking to build well-rounded players in their farm system.
The onus is now on Sprong to use the time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to refine his game, work on his play away from the puck and develop some consistency to his explosive game.
Pittsburgh may be coming off of back-to-back Stanley Cup parades, but they do not feel the need to push a prospect into a position he is not ready for, patience is key.
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Michael Pityk is an analyst who has written for numerous sites since beginning his professional career. He’s acted as a credentialed member of the media for the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Penguins. His work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, The Sports Journal, MSN, PensLabyrinth, Montreal Hockey Talk, ESPN Pittsburgh, The Hockey Writers, Todays SlapShot and The Bleacher Report. He formerly was the editor of Pens Labyrinth and an analyst for The Sports Journal. Michael presently acts as an NHL Analyst for The Hockey Writers