The Pittsburgh Penguins will enter this season looking to rebound from their second-round loss to the Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals.
They’ll also be looking for another player to have a breakout season.
In 2015-16, it was defenseman Brian Dumoulin. In 2016-17, it was wingers Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel. Last year it was winger Bryan Rust. Now, Daniel Sprong will look to join the club this upcoming season.
Following the trade of Sheary to Buffalo in June, as well as the departure of winger Tom Kuhnhackl to the New York Islanders, the Penguins have two forward spots up for grabs. 21-year-old Sprong will be making his case for one of them during training camp.
During the Penguins’ season-ending press conference, General Manager Jim Rutherford noted the following:
#Pens GMJR: Daniel Sprong will be a regular on our team next year.
— Josh Getzoff (@PensJG) May 9, 2018
Drafted 46th overall by the Penguins in 2015, Sprong became the team’s top prospect less than a week later after Kasperi Kapanen was shipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Phil Kessel deal.
With a strong preseason, he made the opening night roster as an 18-year-old and played 18 games. He recorded the first two goals of his career before being sent back to his junior team, the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL in mid-December.
Sprong missed half the year in 2016-17, due to offseason shoulder surgery, but still managed to record 59 points (32 goals, 27 assists) in 31 games in the Q.
It was thought he could make the full-time jump to the NHL last season, but he ultimately spent a majority of the year with Wilkes-Barre Scranton, where he recorded 65 points in 65 AHL games. Sprong did play eight NHL games, and recorded three points.
So if he couldn’t crack the roster in his first three years, why will he play such a key role this season?
It’s simple, really. The Penguins need him to.
Cost Controlled Talent and Youth
Cost controlled isn’t something which can be used to describe many players on the Penguins roster as the team sits at just around $1 million under the cap ceiling at the time of writing.
Because Sprong had just one professional season under his belt when his entry-level contract expired, he didn’t have much leverage in contract negotiations. This allowed the Penguins to sign him to a two-year, $1.5-million contract on June 25. With an AAV of just $750,000, it allows the team to continue their philosophy of surrounding their higher paid, core players with younger, inexpensive talent.
Born in 1997, Sprong would be the youngest Penguin forward by three years. Fellow wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon were both born in 1994. Additionally, he would be the youngest player on the roster by two years, as goalie Tristan Jarry was born in 1995.
Sprong succeeding would mean that when the trade deadline rolls around, instead of searching for a high-cost talent, Rutherford will have the option to save his limited assets and instead go for a depth piece in case of injury.
For a team whose top-12 forwards have an average age of 27.7, adding fresh legs would be helpful.
Sprong’s Early Results Have Been Positive
As the Penguins struggled to score for much of the season, our Julia Stumbaugh wrote that the Penguins should be playing Sprong.
A solution to this lack of scoring could be putting talented young wingers in the spotlight and hoping for another Guentzel, Sheary or Rust to spark the team into some much-needed scoring
They should have then, and they should be now.
While his time in the NHL was limited last year, playing just eight games. Sprong was among the Penguins best forwards possession-wise.
According to Natural Stat Trick, in just over 100 minutes, Sprong had a Corsi For % of 62.98. Good for best among all Penguins. His High Danger Corsi For % of 85.19 was also best among Penguins with at least 100 minutes played.
Sprong also had a 5-on-5 P/60 of 1.76, the same as Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. That number was also better than the ones recorded by T.J. Oshie (1.51), Tyler Seguin (1.68), and Mika Zibanejad (1.35).
This isn’t to say Sprong is better than any of those mentioned, because he isn’t. It just shows he has the potential to be a productive player if given the chance.
Sprong has also drawn rave reviews for his lightning quick shot, as well as his skating ability. Both are things which franchises want on the wing.
His shot was on display during his time in the NHL, as he fired 22 pucks on net (2.75 a game). Sprong had two games of six shots on net, and four games of at least three.
His 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 8.33 also shows he may have had some bad luck as well.
Not to mention Sprong led all AHL rookies with 32 goals. That number was also good to be tied for second among all AHLers.
Budding Chemistry With Crosby
One way for a Penguin to stick in the league is to play well with Sidney Crosby when, and if, they’re given the chance.
Recently, it’s been shown with Sheary and Guentzel — in the past with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, who played alongside Crosby for over half a decade.
Sprong was given a brief chance to play with the Penguin captain last season, and he showed well.
In 58 minutes together at 5-on-5, Crosby and Sprong controlled 65.74 percent of shot attempts and they also had 17 high danger chances for, compared to just two against. Three of those high danger chances resulted in goals for the duo.
In a Jan. 5, 2018 game against the Islanders, the line of Crosby, Sprong and Dominik Simon was at its best in the 4-0 victory. With Crosby recording four points, Sprong three, and Simon had two.
Sprong could begin the season on the third line with Derick Brassard and Simon, but if he plays well, he should find himself on the top line in short order.
The emergence of Sprong will be a development to watch in Pittsburgh.
Conner McTague is a recent graduate of the Journalism program at Durham College. He covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers. He hopes to make a career out of sports reporting.