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Daniel Sprong continuing to spin his wheels

The Pens youngster can’t show more without more ice time, but can’t earn more ice time without showing more.

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NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

A hot topic, perhaps the most polarizing summer issue for fans to debate, was the future of Daniel Sprong. Many were confident he could be a 20-30 goal scorer as soon as this season! Others were more cautious. Clearly the latter group would be one coach Mike Sullivan subscribes to. As Bob Grove, writing for 93.7 The Fan’s website summed up well:

Sprong has had only five third-period shifts in the past three games and has just three shots in these seven games – fewest of any forward on the team. He’s got three assists, two at even strength, but Sprong has put himself in a position where every defensive mistake gets magnified and cuts further into his already reduced ice time.

He’s adding next to nothing, and while some will argue that he’s not been given a legitimate chance, the fact is that he hasn’t made his own breaks. Not in the preseason. Not in the regular season. Right now, Sprong can’t wait for someone to open the door for him; he’s got to force it open himself. Given his age, there’s plenty of time for that to happen. But it’s clearly not happening now.

As general manager Jim Rutherford told Josh Yohe of The Athletic ($) earlier in the week:

“It’s not easy for him right now, and I realize that,” Rutherford said. “For a player with his kind of scoring ability, he’s just not going to get that many opportunities to score. This is the place that we’ve put him in.”

“I say it’s the place we’ve put him in, but then, I don’t think we have any other choice right now,” Rutherford explained. “I don’t say that we’ve put him in this spot as if I think there is another choice right now. He’s a right wing. There are three very good right wings in front of him.”

Finding a spot has been impossible for far in the first handful of games. As Rutherford notes, the Penguins have Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust as right wings. Coach Sullivan clearly likes and is comfortable with all of them. Sprong, clearly not so much.

The Sullivan/Sprong working relationship and how each and get the best out of one another has been a point on my mind for a while. This passage from summer remains as true and relevant today as it was almost three months ago when I wrote it:

The game is over-coached, but the way to combat that isn’t by turning players loose. A player like Sprong will have to be very smart and detail-oriented to stay on the right side of the puck when he doesn’t have it. He’ll want to make sure he’s in passing lanes and his stick is where it should be when he’s defending. Sprong needs to demonstrate that he’s engaged all over the ice at all times. If he can do that — and there’s no reason he can’t — that’ll go towards putting him in good graces of a coach. At that point, skill can take over with the puck and talent always wins out.

Unfortunately, Sprong has had some tough moments on the ice that have resulted in goals going in the net, while as Grove notes above hasn’t gotten much going offensively by shooting the puck.

The obvious would be getting worked over by Edmonton’s Alex Chiasson last game:

But there’s other issues as well. Failure to win a puck off the wall in a defensive battle and then subsequently being in no position to cover Jeff Petry at the point led to goal against last week vs. Montreal

Mistakes like this are erasing all Sprong’s equity with the coach and getting him stapled to the bench.

And thus the vicious cycle for Sprong this season- he can’t showcase his offensive talent without getting more ice time and opportunity. But he’s clearly not going to get much of an opportunity at all on a deep team and when he makes mistakes defensively, relegating him to an after-thought on the team. So far it’s been a puzzle that both player and coach have been unable to figure out and break through.

Sprong has gone from starting camp on the first line with Sidney Crosby to being publicly called out by Rutherford and assistant coach Mark Recchi who both wanted “more” from him...Down to the fourth line to grocery stick...Could a scratch be next? And is this patience for the long game or the beginning of the end for this player with this team?

There are still as many questions now as there ever has been regarding Daniel Sprong and the end result looks as cloudy as ever.