Former Penguin Alex Kovalev let some feelings out (in, to be fair, an interview translated from Russian).
Tough not to agree with Brian Metzer here:
This still makes me irrationally angry to this day. We sat above that action on press row in disbelief. They were down 1-0... 1-0... a guy acquired to play in just that moment sat and watched.— Brian Metzer (@Brian_Metzer) August 8, 2018
The talk of a player being punished for trying to be creative and perhaps playing a bit too risky for a coach’s liking may have applied to Kovalev and Dan Bylsma, but it also sounds a lot like Daniel Sprong and Mike Sullivan as well.
Just listen to this quote Sullivan gave in January after making Sprong a healthy scratch after four-straight point-less games.
“We’re excited about what he’s brought here. He’s a good player. He can really shoot the puck. Obviously, he has some scoring touch. We’re trying to work with him with other aspects of his game, but certainly him and I had a conversation on the process.”
Sprong would soon be returned to the minor leagues, where he would stay for the rest of the season. At the end of the year in May, general manager Jim Rutherford talked about the development plan Sprong was on.
“We were very careful with him this year. We develop players in different ways, and certainly he had the ability at certain times to come in and play an offensive role on our team, but he needed to work on his all-around game. He did that. There were times in Wilkes-Barre where it dropped off a little bit, but I think it was more from disappointment he wasn’t called up here.”
In a sense, Sprong needed the time in the AHL to work on his game and establish himself. He was 20-years-old for most of last season, an incredibly young age. No need to rush the future when a little patience and all-around maturation is needed.
And this isn’t a heavy-handed bashing on Sullivan; naturally a professional coach wants and needs players that he can trust and count on. A young player like Sprong has proven nothing. The NHL game is very structured, very organized, and very regimented. It’s one of the reasons the Washington Capitals just won the Stanley Cup; they sat back in a tight defensive stance, let teams like the Penguins and Lightning attack and make a mistake, then try to pounce with a counter-attack.
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.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Clark Donatelli spoke to that at the Penguins prospect camp this summer in June, predicting big things ahead for Sprong and also mentioning how his time in WBS was beneficial:
“We know he can play. He had some hard times and persevered through it. And he grew as a player, and I think if you ask him he’s tell you that from the time he came in to the time he left, he’s a lot more confident as a whole hockey player, offensively and defensively, just his whole game. His approach and how to be a pro, just from being around [Tom Kostopoulos] and some of the leadership group down there, he’s better in how to prepare mentally on and off the ice.”
And, if not, there’s always good old fashioned lesson teaching. The best and most famous one of stern coach trying to teach upstart has to harken back to Kovalev in 1994, when a young AK27 extended his shift too long for famously gruff coach Mike Keenan’s liking.
In response, Keenan waived off Kovalev’s attempts to come to the bench, keeping him on the ice for a five, seven, or 10 minute shift, depending on which version of the legend you read. During that extended shift, Kovalev drew two penalties and even scored a goal, so whatever old school lesson Keenan was trying to teach didn’t exactly work out as he intended.
While it’s extremely unlikely that Sullivan will get so frustrated that he “punishes” Sprong during a game by keeping him on the ice until he falls over from exhaustion, it still will be interesting to see what happens next month in training camp between the two.
Sullivan had little use for a player in Conor Sheary, who scored a very impressive 37 even strength goals in the last two seasons, but provided little two-way play and wasn’t a very effective player when he was in scoring slumps. Sheary ended up traded this summer. Sullivan has butted heads and been displeased at times with Phil Kessel too, who just put up a whopping 92-point regular season.
How Sprong is able to get along, and what role and opportunity he’s given in training camp, figures to be one of the top storylines for the Penguins this year. He’ll become one of the latest examples of a highly-talented offensive player trying to adapt and fit into an NHL world where coaching structure is key.