It’s an incredibly rare feat for 18 year-old hockey players to crack the NHL, and for good reason.
The NHL is the fastest, strongest, most talented hockey league in the world, and only the best of the best fresh-faced 18 year-olds are able to stay afloat there on a regular basis. Each year, however, there are a special few, usually the highest choices from that year’s entry draft, that manage to stick around and carve out regular roles on their teams.
This year is no exception in that regard, as a few elite prospects from the 2015 NHL Entry Draft made the cut: Connor McDavid, drafted 1st overall by the Edmonton Oilers; Noah Hanifin, selected 5th overall; Daniel Sprong, taken 46th overall.
In an exceptionally rare occurrence, Sprong, a second round draft choice, has stuck around with his big league club, the Pittsburgh Penguins, all throughout training camp and is now playing for the team. He becomes the first second round draft pick since Ryan O’Reilly (taken 33rd overall in the 2009 draft) to achieve the same feat.
Sprong is a dynamic offensive player, utilizing a balanced repertoire of skating, shooting, and on-ice awareness to attack opposing defenses and goalies. He’s played five games for the Penguins so far and has already scored his first career goal, a perfect snipe against the Ottawa Seantors:
How did a player good enough to play in the NHL at 18 years of age fall all the way to the middle of the second round? It’s an understandable question that a lot of people are asking already, and one which many more will ask if Sprong can score more goals like that one against the Senators.
His emergence isn’t exactly out of nowhere. Sprong had a very impressive stint in the QMJHL prior to the draft, notching just over a point-per-game (68 points in 67 contests) as a 16 year-old two seasons ago and then 88 points in 68 games last year, which was 13 points more than his next closest teammate, Filip Chlapik.
Sprong was certainly no stranger to scouts. As outlined by his pre-draft “The Next Ones” profile right here on The Hockey Writers, he was considered to be a top-30 player, or in other words a first round draft pick, by a number of top scouting services. His excellent play in the QMJHL was widely known by that point.
Yet, for some reason, teams took a flyer on him, some teams even doing so multiple times (the Boston Bruins used five picks before Sprong went to Pittsburgh).
As detailed in some of the scouting reports that were quoted in the above linked article, Sprong is by no means a perfect player, with some issues regarding his physical strength and his play away from the puck. Those issues alone, however, would have been ludicrous ones to use to pass up a prospect of this caliber, as not only do all young players have some completely reasonable deficiencies in their games that need to be developed or ironed out over time, but also because problems like muscle mass and defensive zone coverage are significantly easier to improve over time in comparison to raw mechanical skills like skating and shot release.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that Sprong is necessarily better than many of the prospects that were selected before him this past draft. Players like Dylan Strome (3rd overall), Mitch Marner (4th overall) and others are brimming with talent and most likely capable of playing in the NHL right now, only being sent back to juniors due to a lack of roster space, organizational development preferences, or other reasons.
At the same time, however, Sprong could very easily end up being better than a very large number of those players drafted ahead of him. The actual reasons why he fell so far will probably, by and large, remain a secret forever as teams like to hold their cards close to their chests, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if many of those teams will be kicking themselves behind closed doors for years to come.