CRANBERRY, Pa. — I've re-watched countless hours of hockey video. I've read hundreds of articles. I've ripped through the stats, the trends, the tendencies and more than I'll ever be able to remember.
Welcome to a calculated dissection of the 2018-19 Penguins with this daily series that will take a deep dive into each player projected to be on the roster Oct. 4 when the Capitals come to town, with a hard focus on what's expected from him in the season to come. My primary aim with this exercise is to extend my own knowledge, but I prefer to do that with you. So if you've got anything to add or discuss, let's do that together down in comments.
Up next ...
• Position: Right wing
• Size: 6-0, 180
• Age: 21
• Born: March 17, 1997, in Amsterdam, Netherlands
• Year in NHL: 3rd
• Contract: Signed through 2020, $750,000 AAV, can be RFA in 2021
• Claim to fame: Organization's top prospect ... and biggest mystery
• 2017-18 statistics: 2 goals, 1 assist in 8 regular-season games
• Progression/regression: Zach Aston-Reese is a Mike Sullivan guy. When it comes to Sprong, it's pretty obvious that he hasn't approached that status quite yet. Despite putting up 65 points (32 goals, 33 assists) in 65 games last season to lead Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the organization's top prospect received only an eight-game audition with the big club. During that stint, Sprong scored twice in one game — a crucial 4-0 blanking of the Islanders in Brooklyn — and added an assist. He was shut out in the other seven, including four as a top-line winger next to Sidney Crosby. To make matters worse, the captain was also held off the stat sheet in five-on-five play, though he did score two goals and assisted on six more on the Sprong-less power play.
• Prospectus: It's time to swim. Sprong cannot be sent back to the minors without clearing waivers, which he'd never do. His shot is tantalizing. It’s deceptive, quick, effective, and at times, plain unfair. Just ask Jaroslav Halak:
It’s the main reason fans are clamoring for more ice time for the 21-year-old. It’s coming.
The biggest question surrounding Sprong is this: Can he be a two-way forward?
“People are always going to say I’m not the 200-foot player that everyone wants,” Sprong said last April when he was called up to the Black Aces, a reserve of sorts, during the Penguins’ playoff run. “But I think I made it a long way. At the end of the day, I’m an offensive player, and I thought I made big strides in my defensive side. I think the coaching staff trusts me as the season went on.”
It’s debatable if the coaches really feel that way. Or the players, for that matter.
Last January, as Sprong cleaned out his locker after receiving word that he was being demoted again, his teammates spoke about the “Penguins way” of doing things. Puck support, backchecking, zone breakouts and situational awareness were just a few examples. They reiterated that skill alone won’t get the job done at this level.
If Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and even Phil Kessel are backchecking, so are you.
Sprong said that sunk in.
“When I do have an opportunity to get back in the lineup, I’ll be more ready,” he said.
Sprong is a natural goal-scorer. A classic triggerman. That beautiful, explosive release is legit. But it’s the intangibles that have delayed a promotion. Most point to his lapses on the defensive end and, while there is concern in that department, as with most young players, Sprong has also been a liability on offense. If Crosby isn’t scoring, there’s a problem, and Sullivan's main issue with Sprong — even more than the defensive lapses — is his tendency to get lost in the offensive zone. In his final NHL game Jan. 17 in Anaheim, Sprong played a season-low 8:33. He had one shot on goal and a giveaway. He was on the Penguins' top line that night.
This performance was likely the final straw.
On an odd-man rush early in the first period, he got bunched up next to fellow rookie Dominik Simon and Crosby as they entered the zone together on the right side. With the period winding down, Crosby was a one-man show, keeping the play alive and looking for an opening. Sprong, No. 41, was seemingly in quicksand, out of position and not looking very eager to get open:
In the AHL, apprehension around the crease helped lead to a healthy scratch. In other words, don't pass up opportunities like this one:
The bottom line during his brief NHL stint: When you are on the No. 1 line of the Pittsburgh Penguins, seven-game scoring droughts are not an option.
Though Sprong’s Corsi For rating — an advanced stat that measures his percentage of time on the ice when a shot has been taken rather than allowed — was stellar at 64.1, he needs to be accountable and available in the offensive zone. Four scoreless games in a row last season earned him a seat in the press box. He was a healthy scratch in L.A.and San Jose. A few days later, he was in his car, heading east toward Wilkes-Barre.
Sprong went back to the AHL last January. By mid-March, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Clark Donatelli scratched Sprong after scoring only two goals in 17 games. Donatelli claimed it was part of his "development," calling it "educational." Maybe it was an I-don't-want-to-be-here-anymore hangover? Regardless, after a few bumps and slumps, Sprong finished strong, with eight goals in the final 10 games.
Sprong has the work ethic and will to play at both ends. It simply hasn’t translated at the NHL level yet. He’s only 26 games into his NHL career. He's young. Obviously the organization — mainly Jim Rutherford — thinks highly of him. He skated in 18 games with the big club to begin the 2015-16 season, just four months after he was a second-round draft selection. The GM wanted to see what he could do, despite former head coach Mike Johnston making the rookie a healthy scratch a dozen times. Sprong scored twice and had one assist.
This season, he will have every opportunity to prove the doubters wrong. Would anyone be really all that surprised if he scores 40 goals next season? At the same time, would anyone be shocked if he became a regular healthy scratch?
He's a true wild card. And all eyes are on him. It will be interesting to see how his season unfolds.
To continue reading, log into your account: