Darryl Belfry said this about Sprong a couple weeks ago:
Intangible on Sprong is he can think & play w/great NHL players, rare ability. NHL will actually be easier for him to play. For most is not— belfryhockey (@belfryhockey) October 3, 2015
Lastly on Sprong - he knows when &where a smart player wants the puck &can create THAT play. Key to stay is to consistently win his own puck— belfryhockey (@belfryhockey) October 3, 2015
Belfry is skills coach who has worked with Sprong for a few years now, and also coaches players like Tavares, Pacioretty, Crosby, Duchene during the offseason. He was hired by the Maple Leafs this summer to help them with their player development.
Sprong himself said this after it was announced that he had made the opening night roster:
I think it's a much easier transition (in the NHL) than it was in Junior. Guys are much quicker with the puck or without the puck. You see plays develop much quicker here. In Juniors, it's kind of just running around, trying to hit the guy. It's chaos. Here, it's more (about) systems and very technical. (...) I think it's much easier to transition coming here and learning the system and playing without the puck, instead of playing in Junior where guys just run around and there is no real system at all.
Putting Sprong's performance in context
Through 5 games, Sprong has performed well regardless of the ice time he has gotten. His shot may be his biggest weapon, and one he used often so far. Looking at all 18-19 year old NHL players who have played at least 5 games in a season since 2005, here are they ranked by how much they shoot at even strength (iCF/60):
Top 10 volume shooters, age 18-19 , 2005-2016
SH/60 = shots on goal per 60
iCF/60 = shot attempts per 60
iSC/60 = scoring chances per 60
Sprong currently ranks 2nd among an impressive group of young players. He isn't playing against top lines like some of these players have done. And maybe he wouldn't be able to keep up that shot volume over 60-80 games. But he still has been able to find the areas to get a shot off. Doing that at any age is a valuable skill in the NHL. And doing it as a teenager? Even more so.
To put the above list into perspective, here is a look at all 18-19 year old NHLers since 2005, and not just the top ten. All data from War On Ice, chart created with Tableau.
Not only has Sprong performed well compared to other 18-19 year-olds. He has also done so in comparison to his own teammates. At even strength, only Kessel and Letang have more total shots than him - both players who have gotten significantly more ice time than him. And Sprong's shots aren't from the perimeter, either. Only three Penguins players have more scoring chances (shots taken from areas that have a a higher chance to become goals) than him. League-wide among 18-19 year olds, only Dylan Larkin and Nikolaj Ehlers have more.
From the list above, Larkin and Ehlers already have a firm grab on their NHL roster spots. Both will likely play a full season this year. The guy who stands out is 18 year old Filip Forsberg, who joined the Nashville Predators for a 5 game stint in April of 2013 after his season in Sweden had ended. Forsberg ended up playing 13 NHL games the next season, but spent most of his time in the AHL. One season later, he led the Predators in scoring.
The list of 18-19 year old rookies who have produced points during their 9-game tryout, but were ultimately sent back to their CHL team and didn't play more than 9 games in a season, is short. Since 2005:
- Brett Bulmer, 2011-12, 9 GP, 3 pts
- Alex Pietrangelo, 2008-09, 8 GP, 1pts
- Sam Reinhart, 2014-15, 9 GP, 1 pt
- Sam Bennett, 2014-15, 1 GP, 1 pt (sent back due to a shoulder injury)
Pietrangelo was selected 4th overall in the 2008 draft, and he played his first full NHL season in 2010. Sam Reinhart, selected 2nd overall in 2014, was on a team that knew it would be tanking and almost had no young players in the lineup. Then there is Sam Bennett, selected 4th overall in 2014, who only played one game at the end of the season due to a shoulder injury he had before the season started. He joined the Flames fully once the playoffs started.
Brett Bulmer got the chance a year after he was drafted at age 19. But he hasn't been able to produce well in the AHL in the last few years. Funnily enough, Bulmer recorded his 1st NHL point with the same player who assisted Sprong on his 1st NHL goal: Matt Cullen.
Penguins fans likely remember Jordan Staal's 9 game tryout back in 2006. Staal scored a single goal in his first 6 games, but then added 3 goals and one assists in his next three games before his tryout ended. He added 5 points in 9 games to a strong two-way performance, which made the decision to keep him in the lineup an easy one.
Then there are Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O'Reilly. Both are the two most recent 2nd round draft picks to make the NHL directly after being drafted. Their production in their first 9 games:
- Bergeron: 7 points - 2 goals, 5 assists
- O'Reilly: 7 points - 1 goal, 6 assists
Note: Bergeron started his NHL career in a very different NHL, with one of the biggest differences being that no salary cap was in place.
Compared to Staal, Bergeron, and O'Reilly, who are all known for their strong defensive play, Sprong is a very different type of player, which makes his situation even more unique.
- Center: Crosby, Malkin, Bonino, Cullen
- Right Wing: Kessel, Hornqvist, Fehr, Bennett
- Left Wing: Perron, Kunitz, Plotnikov, Dupuis
Even if Sprong increases his production over the next 4 games, the odds are stacked against him.
The Penguins currently have three wingers out with injury. The season is long, and it's likely that more injuries will happen. But fully healthy, Sprong needs to outperform at least one of these twelve players.
Chances are that Sprong will be sent to the QMJHL after his 9 games are over. Considering what he said about the lack of systems in Junior, it's possible that his defensive skills won't be hugely improved in 12 months. The biggest difference could be him growing a few inches, and adding a couple pounds. Being stronger may then help him earn a roster spot next season, if he doesn't get one now.
In a perfect world, the Penguins have the option to send Sprong to the AHL. But that isn't possible until Sprong turns 20.