One year ago today, the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled the trigger on a classic “change of scenery” trade with a familiar trade partner in the Anaheim Ducks. The Pens would send young but struggling forward Daniel Sprong out west in exchange for a young but unestablished defenseman in Marcus Pettersson. Both were former second round picks, Sprong in 2015, Pettersson in 2014.
Everyone had an opinion, most of them negative about the deal for the Pittsburgh perspective.
Sprong, much like Derrick Pouliot and Simon Despres before him, captured the imagination of the internet. I still contend it wasn’t because of the actual player himself, but the idea of that player built in a fan’s head. The young, skilled, exciting, dynamic surefire 30-40 goal scorer (really, people said this) that was the missing piece for the Pens.
Of course, Sprong was never actually going to be that. Anyone paying attention to how his career was playing out should have seen that. Sprong was never really trusted or given a big role by Mike Sullivan, because he didn’t score much at the NHL level, blew defensive assignments and had lackluster habits away from the puck. While he certainly had upside especially for a young player (scoring 65 points in 65 AHL games at an age-20 season is impressive no matter how you slice it), Sprong never found traction in the Pens’ organization. Pittsburgh was deep at right wing with Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust, and frankly all of them were just better options for Sullivan than Sprong.
Despite pleas of “not being given a chance” — as if players deserve to be GIVEN anything in a world on the rink where everything is earned — Sprong did have his chances. He started training camp 2018 on Sidney Crosby’s line and promptly played his way off it in a matter of days. From there, Sprong’s fate was likely sealed. Since Pittsburgh mismanaged his waiver status by inexplicably playing him in 18 NHL games as an 18-year old in the 2015-16 season, Sprong was stuck in limbo. He couldn’t be sent to the minors to develop more, but he wasn’t valued to play a lot in the NHL.
When he did play and wasn’t a healthy scratch, Sprong ended up miscast playing a handful of minutes on a fourth line with players like a center-playing-wing in Riley Sheahan and a 42-year old Matt Cullen. Predictably, it didn’t set any of them up for success.
So on this day a year ago, Rutherford pulled the plug on Sprong’s stint in Pittsburgh. It was an unsatisfying end for all parties.
At the time we wrote:
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
Option B: The Penguins have made a painfully incorrect evaluation costing them a quality young player
Despite almost an even split in a poll posted here with almost 1,700 votes, twelve months have given a clear answer.
The Penguins certainly didn’t make a BAD assessment or mistake in trading Sprong. Sprong played 47 games with Anaheim last year and actually scored 14 goals at the NHL level. However he was a healthy scratch by two different Ducks’ coaches (first Randy Carlyle than Bob Murray) at different points of the year, continuing a nasty trend that’s plagued him his whole career with NHL coaches souring on him and demoting him.
Sprong was then unimpressive enough that Anaheim waived him at the end of training camp 2019. Somewhat suprisingly he went unclaimed, and has spent all season so far in 2019-20 with AHL San Diego, scoring 13 points (5G+8A) in 18 games with a -7 +/- rating. All numbers down from his age-20 AHL season just two years earlier, which probably doesn’t portend well to his mindset, work ethic or form right now. Physically a 22-year old Sprong should be ripping up the AHL like he did at age 20.
Anaheim’s come to the same conclusion that Pittsburgh did: Sprong doesn’t offer enough to play as a scoring forward in the NHL. No other team in the league was interested in giving him a chance either.
That doesn’t mean his career is over or anything, but it is a pretty clear indication of how far he has fallen.
The flip-side, is Pettersson has been a delight for Pittsburgh. Pettersson was only playing 14 minutes per game last year with Anaheim! He’s up to 19 minutes now, perhaps even more with the injury to Brian Dumoulin opening up an awful wound to the Pens’ left-side defensive depth. Pettersson, while not perfect, has been growing into a perfectly solid second pair defenseman. He’s big, uses his reach well, can make a pass, skates well, isn’t lost in the offensive zone either. Pittsburgh found a keeper and a player who should be a good one for them for at least the next handful of years.
With all the consternation and sound and fury about trading Sprong away for a fairly vanilla type of defensive defenseman, the end result of this transaction in the last year couldn’t have gone any better for the Pens. Sprong was exactly who they thought he was, to paraphrase the old coaching line. Pettersson exceeded most reasonable expectations and is the only one of the two currently in the NHL.