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Daniel Sprong Trade: did the Pens make the right call?

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Did the Pens make a mistake? Or will they be justified in their decision to trade Daniel Sprong?

NHL: Preseason-Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The other shoe finally dropped and the Daniel Sprong saga in Pittsburgh is over with the trade of the youngster out to the Anaheim Ducks for another young player in defenseman Marcus Pettersson.

Or as GM Jim Rutherford told the Post-Gazette:

“I think Sully gave him a good chance. He put him with Sid for preseason games, hoping that would get the momentum started and the confidence started to do what he does best — and that’s score. He didn’t. Then he moved in and out of the lineup.”

“He just did not get ahead of those guys [Dominik Simon, Zach Aston-Reese, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist]. Then it gets to a point where I have to make a decision on where that development’s going to go if it continues all year. I felt when we got the opportunity with a team that has a lot of depth with young defensemen, to get one of them, that we should move forward with it.”

It’s unsatisfactory since the Pens, or the fans at least, don’t really know what they had with Sprong. Usually at least by the time a young player gets dealt after failing to live up to expectations (see Pouliot, Derrick or Bennett, Beau), he’s gotten to be in the organization for five or more years, and had quite a bit of chances to play and NHL experience and either injuries or inconsistency and mistakes show it’s time to move on.

What is jarring about Sprong is just how little actual time and game action he got as a pro before the Pens moved on from him.

If you look at the actual time, Sprong was only with the Pittsburgh organization for the first two months of the 2015-16 season, all of 2017-18 (though mostly in the AHL) and now just two months of 2018-19. Sure, there was prospect and developmental camps but overall this player got almost no time to grow and find a niche on the team while he was with the NHL team.

He only has played 42 total NHL games (and only 24 of them have come in about the last three calendar years). Almost all of those games were in small roles. He only played 68 total AHL games of consequence. The team is moving on, pretty much because they have to, but now one has to wonder if they will regret it.

Because at this point there’s pretty much only two choices:

Option A: Mike Sullivan has made a correct decision and Sprong isn’t all that good at the NHL level

or

Option B: The Penguins have made a painfully incorrect evaluation costing them a quality young player

If it’s the first scenario, then the Penguins are totally justified in trading Sprong at this point (while he still has some sort of appreciable value) and the moaning from fans is just rooted in not having information of the situation.

After all, coach Mike Sullivan runs a high-octane, offensive-minded powerhouse team. Why wouldn’t he want a young winger who has torn up all the lesser leagues if he was good enough to contribute at the NHL level?

The truth may well be that for whatever reason that Sprong just isn’t good enough to cut it at the NHL level. Perhaps he doesn’t know how to use his teammates all that well, that he doesn’t position himself to receive passes or know where to go without the puck. Maybe in lower leagues he could cover this up by being a “one man show” and overpowering the opposition with his skill. That doesn’t always fly in the NHL, very few individual players can stand out against the best in the world like that.

So if it’s the case that Sullivan saw Sprong and Crosby early in the season for some practices, they didn’t mesh, Sullivan analyzed the situation and found Sprong not to be of NHL caliber, then he’s right and all is well. For the Pens organization at this point, it’s about the best case scenario (sorry, Daniel) if it turns out that Sprong was simply correctly judged to not really be that good of an NHL option.

The Naslund parallel

Markus Naslund

However, it’s the second option, and the Pens have failed, that would likely haunt the team for years. The biggest example of something like this happening for this orgniazaion was in the 1996 when Pittsburgh traded Markus Naslund to Vancouver, straight up, for Alek Stojanov.

In this instance though, the Pens’ evaluation of Naslund was NOT the issue. Naslund was traded when he was 22 years old. He had 53 points in 66 games in the NHL for the Pens in 1995-96 when he was moved in the middle of that season. Pittsburgh knew he was good, but they also knew that Naslund was a bit of a superfluous piece on a team boasting Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Petr Nedved, Tomas Sandstrom and Brian Smolinski. (Just as Sprong was rendered redundant nowadays).

What Pittsburgh didn’t have was a Kevin Stevens/Rick Tocchet type of power forward and the evaluation miss was thinking that Stojanov could be that type of player. A serious car accident suffered by Stojanov soon after the trade didn’t help, but even before that point it was still an incorrect analysis of the situation.

Well, that was a digression.

Anyways, to link the cases the “what could have been if the Pens kept Naslund” discussion haunted many Pens fans all the way until his retirement in 2009. It’s Exhibit A for Pittsburgh fans in first-hand accounts of making a terrible trade.

In that regard, if Sullivan was incorrect about Sprong - that the player needed more time or more opportunity in order to demonstrate immense value at the NHL level - then Pittsburgh could be in the same boat. It’s doubtful Sprong is going to have a 395 goal, 869 point NHL career like Naslund did, so the Pens probably won’t have a full-blown Naslund memory on their hand, but it would still sting just the same as a reminder of a mistake made should Sprong eventually become a successful scorer in a different team’s NHL jersey.

Come to think of it, though, there could be an Option C..

Option C: Option A is correct- Sullivan was right that Sprong isn’t an NHL player now BUT Option B was also correct in the sense the player needed more opportunity to grow into his potential

This might be the most cruel scenario - it’s perfectly valid to think that Sullivan is correct for not having much for Sprong in the NHL in 2018-19. Sprong may have showed little in practices, and he didn’t really do anything in small chances to earn more game time. Sullivan also has three really good right wings anyways in Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust.

But Sprong is 21 years old. He hasn’t played close to a full season in the NHL. He’s never had extended time with great players. It could just be that he needs more time or a lesser depth chart to get a better chance and eventually he get there.

In this case, there might not be a “bad guy” or anyone to blame, just circumstances and timing not working out quite right for the player or the team. No one really wants to hear or accept that, but sometimes a fit isn’t there and it doesn’t work out.

(Well, I guess you could point a finger on the GM keeping the kid in the NHL at age-18 when he really should have never played more than ten games to ruin his waiver status so he could be in the AHL now longer, but that’s already been written about here).

Daniel Sprong has been interesting since he was drafted. How his career goes from here on out will obviously be monitored very closely by Penguin fans to see which option (A, B or C) ends up coming to pass.

Poll

Today on the day of the trade, when it comes to Daniel Sprong:

This poll is closed

  • 46%
    I think the Penguins probably made a mistake in trading him
    (769 votes)
  • 53%
    I think the Penguins probably made a good assessment in trading him
    (898 votes)
1667 votes total Vote Now