You’ve heard it a million times already, but Daniel Sprong’s role for the Penguins this season is one of the biggest storylines coming into training camp and 2018-19 as a whole. He’s far and away their best prospect (listed at 27th of 100 overall by prospect guru Corey Pronman) since Derrick Pouliot, and with a wide open depth battle for top-six duty on the right wing, Sprong needs to establish his presence in training camp as early as possible.
Jim Rutherford has said over and over again this offseason that he’s pushing for Sprong to be in the lineup come Game 1 against the reigning champion Washington Capitals, but what he’ll do with that high opinion from his general manager and massive opportunity to be an NHL regular makes all the difference.
Unfortunately, a lot of questions still surround the 21-year-old. Will his transition from AHL to NHL smooth out better than it did last season? Will his upcoming training camp performance mirror what Rutherford preached all summer? Will he be a breakout player? Will he rip opposing teams’ nets to shreds with his lethal shot like he did in Wilkes-Barre? After a less-than-impressive NHL debut that dwindled out fast last year, Sprong has major expectations riding on his performance — especially from the coaching staff.
That being said, how high should our expectations be of Sprong? Should we be managing them and keeping them close to the chest after watching Pouliot’s tenure in Pittsburgh blow up in front of us? Sprong is still relatively young. To expect a youthful (albeit a little cocky) guy to leap straight from the minors, where he absolutely dominated, to torching the big boys with ease is a little far-fetched...
...But this time, it’s actually warranted. He doesn’t have to instantly become a superstar; that’s insanity. But what Sprong must do, without a doubt, is produce early and at a regular rate, and earn Mike Sullivan’s long-standing trust. He’s proven at literally every single level of hockey that he's capable of rising up and being a force in the pro ranks, and now, he has to show to his coaches that this weird limbo period of being too good for the AHL, but not good enough for the NHL, is officially behind him.
Sprong: “I had a really good summer in Montreal. I put on some more muscle and had a chance to work on my speed. I was really happy with how last season went. I thought playing the season in WBS was huge for my development. I think it helped me to get ready for this year.” pic.twitter.com/A0e6Ggx0pz— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 11, 2018
Sprong’s strengths lie in driving offensive play, skating fast to fill open gaps in transition, crashing the net, and scoring basically at will after creating perfect opportunities for himself. For a team like Pittsburgh that prides itself on its aggressive style of hockey (i.e., breaking out on the rush, stretching the ice, effectively racking up clean zone entries, and forechecking like crazy for all 60 minutes), there’s no reason why a player like Sprong shouldn't thrive in this environment.
If he’s gifted with a fair trial period lined up on, say, Sidney Crosby’s right (like he is to start training camp), maybe we’ll see a better stat line than the one he coughed up between December 31 and January 7 of last season — eight games of which he only shared 58 minutes with the Penguins’ playmaking captain.
It’s considered dangerous territory when your hopes are put up on a pedestal, but at least you can manage them to an offset of a handful of games to start the season to give Sprong a fair shake. Don’t expect an instant miracle, but do expect that he’ll fill the massive shoes everyone’s created for him, avoid a stern talking to from a general manager who’ll have to eat his words if he fails, and finally impress Sullivan as the new season gets into a comfortable swing.