”One of the hardest things for a young player is sustaining the level of intensity and the level of play game in and game out,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We thought, in the last game that [he] played, he didn’t have quite the sustained performance that he’d shown in the first handful of games that he played.
”By no means are we discouraged by it. I think it’s just part of the process that young players go through. Just the opposite. We’re ecstatic with what he’s brought to the table so far. We know he’s a very good player and he’s only going to get better.”
That Mike Sullivan quote didn’t come from today, but it sounds like it probably could have. Sullivan said the above on December 1st, 2016 and he was talking about Jake Guentzel, but his words can apply largely to Daniel Sprong - who was sent down to the AHL yesterday after being benched in the 3rd period of the game against the Ducks and scratched for the last two games.
Sprong scored 3 points in 8 NHL games, with all the points coming on January 5th against the Islanders. Going scoreless in 7 of 8 games isn’t a luxury a young scoring winger has, though to this eye Sprong didn’t look as poor as his reputation suggested away from the puck.
He was fine, but to Sullivan’s quote about a young player “sustaining performance”, of Sprong’s 22 shots on goal in the 8 games, he only recorded 5 shots in the final 4 games he played. It would have been difficult to sustain 4+ shots/game like Sprong did when he started in his first 4 NHL games of this season, however the drop-off displayed in shots was drastic. And surely the coaching staff was looking at more metrics than that, and found Sprong’s overall performance to have dipped a bit.
And here’s something we said about Guentzel that applies a lot to Sprong too.
In a lot of ways, when you score 2 goals in your first ever NHL period like Guentzel did, there’s no where to really go but down in your performance, scoring just two points in his last four games and turning into a sub 12-minute a night player along the way.
Guentzel’s future is bright, but the vets in Hagelin and Kunitz have the coach’s trust, they’ve proved to be good options positionally, generally make good plays with the puck and add to the play in ways a rookie like Guentzel can’t do consistently. Coaches love consistency and knowing what they’re going to get from players. It’s not Guentzel’s fault he’s a rookie, but it will be very critical for him to have the type of performance that Sullivan will want to see. Surely the coaches will be watching very carefully.
This season, Sprong is in a similar boat at right wing. Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist are lineup impediments for Sprong, as is Bryan Rust who was cleared for full contact practice yesterday and felt “great” afterwards and could play as soon as tonight. Add in Conor Sheary and Guentzel having RW capability as well and Sprong’s easiest path to the lineup this season might be an injury.
However, his challenge now is to take this team-imposed adversity in stride. Hopefully Sprong will respond like Guentzel did last season when he was re-assigned to the AHL and continue to be a productive and dominant player in Wilkes-Barre. If Sprong does that, he will be back in Pittsburgh sooner than later.
Until then, this demotion isn’t much more than a team getting healthier with the return of Rust, and a young player in Sprong whose game quite frankly probably did drop off a bit in the latter games he got. Not the biggest deal in the world, but such is the uneven and unsteady progression from prospect to NHL regular.