After five straight losses and a few bad efforts, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is outwardly unhappy with the makeup of his team right now. (More on that here later).
One interesting subplot all season has been that of 21-year old forward Daniel Sprong. Sprong was a healthy scratch last night for the second time, and he’s pretty much exclusively player a 4th line role for the Pens this season.
Now, there are reports he could be shopped. NHL national insider Darren Dreger mentioned it on the NBC Sports pre-show last night.
“We also always know that Jim Rutherford is working some kind of an angle and deal on the phone,” noted host Kathryn Tappen. “What’s he up to right now?”
“Well, that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s working his angles, he’s working the phones,” indicated Dreger. “I wouldn’t say that there’s a sense of urgency coming out of the general manager’s office, but he can recognize there might be some chemistry issues right now in the game and the lineup of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“If you look throughout that lineup, you see some young, interesting pieces that other teams around the National Hockey League definitely are intrigued by. And I look at 21-year-old Daniel Sprong. Now, he’s a healthy scratch tonight against the Washington Capitals. That’s not shocking, he’s been in and out of the lineup. In fact, he’s had a limited role since being drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“But because of his age and the belief that he can be a top-nine, perhaps project into the top-six, there is going to be some interest, and I’d be surprised if he isn’t moved.
“So that might be a small deal, but in the bigger picture you never know with Jimmy Rutherford. He might have something bigger up his sleeve as well.”
The Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey confirmed this locally.
Multiple industry sources confirmed to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently that the Penguins are listening to offers on Sprong, although it’s less clear whether they’re actually hearing anything.
Opposing general managers typically aren’t clamoring for players in Sprong’s situation, but as one source said, it might be “easy to move a sour apple for sour apple.”
Is Sprong sour?
Not attitude-wise, at least not publicly. He’s mostly said all the right things and has consistently talked about needing to earn his ice time and make the best of what he’s given.
Interestingly a note Mackey makes about change scenery of young players makes sense. While Penguins fans are very high on Sprong for his skill and ceiling, it’s important to take a step back and survey the league - it’s very common to have prospects/young players like Sprong who are having a tough time finding a niche.
One popular player is Josh Ho-Sang in the New York Islanders organization. He’s been outside of hockey norms from everything from choosing to wear the #66 to oversleeping on his very first day of NHL training camp. At 23 he’s failed to establish himself in the NHL and been more a headache than anything else for his managers and coaches.
Another player is Carolina’s Valentin Zykov. Zykov, 23, like Sprong did very well in the AHL last season (54 points in 63 games). Zykov also offers a bit more size and net-front presence at 6’1, 220 pounds but has had a tough go establishing himself with the Hurricanes this season. Per Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman:
Carolina will also test the market for Valentin Zykov, who played just 4:41 in Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Vegas.
Ho-Sang and Zykov would be two similar examples and situations to Sprong, but there are certainly no shortage of young players out there in the same type of boat, if that is the direction that Rutherford wants to take to exchange Sprong for another player in hopes that a shakeup would benefit the team, there should be plenty of options on the market to consider.
While it can be endlessly debated whether or not Sprong got enough of a chance to play in a role sufficient to his success, or if the Pens should be patient with him, or if it is really time to “cut bait” with a talented youngster, it does seem this storyline is moving towards a conclusion.
Sprong started training camp with Sidney Crosby and stayed there for several practices and a bit of preseason time. We don’t know exactly what the coaching staff saw, but they clearly didn’t like it, demoting Sprong quickly to the 4th line, low minute role he has been in ever since.
Pittsburgh also has the luxury of having three really good right wings in Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust. If Sprong wanted to stand out, he really needed to make something good happen for himself. Sprong’s best skill is scoring goals. In 12 NHL games this season he has scored no goals. Sprong only has 13 shots on goal, and in 10 of the 12 games he has recorded 0 or 1 shot on goal. Has he had limited opportunity and time to create? Yes. Has he done very little to get a longer look? Also yes.
We’ll see if there’s any fire behind the smoke of the Pens listening to offers for Sprong, but the recent call-ups from the minors of Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson - two players better suited for a checking line role and who can offer some PK ability in Aston-Reese’s case - make it seem like Sprong’s usefulness in Pittsburgh has all but run its course.