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

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

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.

Comments

I just keep thinking about that saucer pass to Malkin against Vancouver (was it?). It was like a flash of "oh maybe this kid is actually good and just needs to play with the right center". Maybe that center was Geno and not Sid. I don’t know. But generally speaking, guys who average a point per game in the AHL almost always end up as productive NHLers.

All that being said, "productive NHLer" doesn’t mean he was going to be an all-star. And with so many RWs on the team, and the magic of Phil and Geno, he just didn’t do enough to earn a better spot in the lineup. In the end he was just a superfluous piece on a team with 3 good RWs. It really is a shame they burned that year in 15-16. That sure would have been nice to have this season.

About that, guys who average a ppg in the AHL end up being productive NHLers thing, I looked into that. Not like career averages. But I looked up league leader boards from the AHL and that could not be farther from the truth. AHL league leaders very rarely make productive NHLers. Just from a glance, though. I only went back to 14/15 I think.

I should have been more specific. It’s guys who do it under a certain age. The reason the guys who lead the AHL points aren’t in the NHL is because they’re career AHL players. The guys who average a point per game by age 21, I think it is, move on to the NHL.

Do they though? I know last year at the same age Sammy Blais the Blues prospect was basically the same (40p in 42AHL games). He’s got 0 goals and 1 assist in 16 NHL games this year.

Dylan Strome was over a point per last year and he sucked in Arizona, though I guess we’ll see how it goes for him in Chicago.

The other forward on the all rookie AHL team with Sprong and Strome was Jets prospect Mason Appleton (also 21 last year) and he was back in the AHL this year.

And Sprong went out with a whimper in Pittsburgh.

One small example, but an illustration of talented young guys that ripped up the AHL last year and it’s hardly translated to NHL success.

The 2016-17 all rookie forwards were Guentzel (great success!) but then Dan O’Regan (nope) and Mark Janikowski (which…uh I guess moderate NHL success).

2015-16 the all rookie team of young players with the most AHL success it was Austin Czarnik (in the league but that’s about it), Miko Rantanen (big winner but also a top 10 pick that was kept in the AHL longer than necessary to slide a year of his ELC) and Frank Vatrano (ehh I guess an ok bit NHL player).

Don’t really feel like looking back further but just because a young player scores about a point/game in the AHL, it doesn’t always seem to guarantee a bright NHL future, at least in the most recent past. Besides Guentzel and a prior high pick in Rantanen, at least.

I can’t find the original source but here’s a snippet referenced at canucksarmy.com:

Jared Fletcher (@jfletch14) completed further analysis of all 20-22 forwards in the AHL and their points/game vs future NHL success and found similar answers. His work is suggestive that there is high variance among all players but generally every increase of 0.1 in a forwards points/game suggests an increase of ~37 NHL games played (with huge variance, again). This does not bode well for older prospects still in in the AHL.

There’s a graph to go with it, but basically yes, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to NHL prospects. But there’s a clear correlation between success between ages 20-22 and being a useful NHL player. And for what it’s worth, Strome got the Sprong treatment in Arizona: 4th line minutes and bad line mates. I’d wager that had something to do with his failings.

It’s a loaded question, but trading him for a player who plays a position the Pens are weak in at the moment, who actually can play nightly, is a good move.

It’s unfortunate that it came to this, but like it or not, Sprong wasn’t going to get into a position to help the team win. Was he mishandled? Yes, I think it had more to do with burning that first year and starting the clock on his ELC and waiver ineligibility prematurely than it had to do with his handling this season. He wasn’t given free reign on a top six spot, which sucks for him, but he was still getting in the lineup and was showing basically nothing every time out.

The coach didn’t play him to his strengths, but if he was really that good, I think the talent would have shown through at least a little bit. The game where HQ got hurt and Sprong was still stapled to the bench pretty much spelled the end of his time here.

If Pettersson can even be a 6-7D, it’s at least an improvement, roster-wise even if Sprong goes on to be a regular. It just wasn’t going to happen here, unfortunately.

Loaded Question

Agree with that absolutely. I wish DS the best but much like whatever Klim Kostin may or may not do at the NHL level, I really don’t care as far as it pertains to the Pens. Fact is Sprong did nothing to justify more ice time or playing with Top Lines, and is he going to get that shot in Anaheim either?? It was clear Sully wasn’t going to play him and getting a decent player/prospect for him at a position the Pens are weak at is not bad asset management at all. I believe both guys are 2nd Round picks. The rate things were going for Sprong in Pittsburgh this season showed he probably wasn’t going to do much of anything at this level.
As for the Naslund comparison it’s completely skewed, Naslund was a known entity and had put up points already, Pens were banking on Stojanov being a much better player for them than he turned out to be. I’m sure Hartford thought the same about Zarley Zalapski and John Cullen.. This trade is 2 youngsters with upside but haven’t done a whole lot hopefully they both help their new respective teams, especially Pete with too many consonants….

Option C

Pens did well shifting a young and not currently helpful RW for a young D, but only because they created this mess in the first place by burning that entry year. I think Sprong will be good but not elite (Oscar Lindblom seems a solid comparison to me), and will probably be a better player than Pettersson, but simply isn’t NHL ready right now.

Sounds well-reasoned. My only disagreement would be Lindbolm split time in AHL and NHL last year at the age of 21, and eventually caved out an NHL spot this year in large part by playing well on lower lines to grow in his role.

Sprong is less than a year younger than Lindbolm but already has more AHL games. Lindbolm made it in the NHL by playing well in the NHL. Sprong has never done that for a sustained period of time, nor did he do much to earn more of a look.

Going back to our debate last week, I don’t see how more AHL time at this point is really going to benefit Sprong or translate into him being an NHL player. Scoring line players who tend to stick and do well in the NHL usually don’t require a ton of AHL time. Those guys find ways to make it to the NHL and stay in the lineup until they start producing and grow into bigger roles. Sprong couldn’t do that in Pittsburgh, which IMO suggests that he isn’t strong enough to be an NHL caliber player at this time.

I don’t disagree really, but the AHL is a good holding place if you don’t have the right roster opportunity for a player, it wouldn’t hurt Sprong to have spent large parts of this season there. Quite right that Lindblom has shown 2-way tools that have allowed him to be useful in a bottom 6 role – they have different skillsets even if their age, numbers, hype and trajectory are similar. And I agree that we would have seen a little more from Sprong by now if he was going to be the second coming of Naslund, but there are plenty of players who simply need consistent playing time to find their game and Pit just doesn’t have the roster space for that this season, and because of that crazy decision in 15-16 it really was now or never for Sprong.

An aside, I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere, but is Pettersson waiver exempt?

He is, phew.

Yep, you’re right he is able to go to the AHL which is huge. They’re trying to compare him to Dumo and Dumo was AHL only at the same age, so Pettersson is a bit ahead of Dumoulin at the same age, which I guess is encouraging (though I tend to doubt the strides and progression Dumoulin made can be counted on as repeatable by any player).

My point on Sprong was more that guys who are 20+ NHL goal scoring wingers almost never need a "holding place" in the AHL. They do a stint there, then go on to the NHL like the Pens tried to do with Sprong last year. If more AHL time is needed after already having 1+ season there that suggests he is not going to be an NHL impact player (ever, based on most comparables). Other than like Kevin Fiala (who needed more AHL time after breaking his leg) and Anthony Martha (who was a big body that needed more development time) I don’t think any winger that scored 20+ last year needed the extra development time that you were proposing.

Now maybe Sprong is just unique or buying more time would be helpful, but I tend to doubt that.

Bottom line is most players who are going to succeed figure out a way to stay in the NHL lineup by this point in Sprong’s progression. He couldn’t do it in Pittsburgh though we will soon see how things go for him in Anaheim.

I agree when it comes to elite players (and I think we’re agreed Sprong probably won’t be one), but there are lots of different development paths to being a good scoring winger eg. Anders Lee, Jason Zucker, Tomas Tatar, Chris Kreider, theres tons of examples. Quick and sloppy research granted (ie. I haven’t looked beyond the superficial age 21 numbers), but I don’t think any of those guys would’ve forced their way onto the current Pens in their age 21 seasons. We’re splitting hairs though right? I think considering the situation the Pens have done well, Pettersson might only project as a solid 3rd pair but even that is useful, and your Dumo comparison suggests he could be more. Also, even if Sprong is good for 25-25-50 ish in a couple years, maybe a solid young D-man is the better outcome for the Pens trying to win now.

Probably so, but at this point it’s likely a junk for junk trade way moreso than Sprong ever hitting 50 NHL points and Petterssen developing into a solid 2nd pair type. Not impossible that it could still happen for one or both of them, my talking was more along the lines of some Pens fans that treat Sprong with a reverence as if his development would be a sure thing (which admittedly speaks past you a bit)

As Flyers fan I can certainly say, that Oskar Lindblom is not at all a good comparison for Sprong in agreement with Hooks.

Lindblom doesn’t have the tools Sprong does, his shot is average, his skating slightly below average, he’s not dynamic. However he’s extremely smart and positionally aware, he has a nack for reading how plays are going to develop and ending up in the right place, as well as being very strong along the boards and in battles with puck protection, he’s also consistently improved on his weakness’s in order to carve out a tole for himself. He’s best assets is his awareness awareness away from the puck and his ability to read plays on both ends of the ice. He’s very much a support player who drives play well, but will never be the offensive engine on a line.

Sprong has a much higher ceiling than lindblom but also a lower floor. Because Lindblom is already a plus player in the bottom 6 he can play anywhere in the lineup and drive mostly positive outcomes even without scoring, but he’s likely going to end up being a slightly better Michael Raffl. Sprong clearly needs to be in a top 6 role and his potential will be determined by the extent that his very high end offensive tools such as his skating and shot translate and cover up his weakness away from the puck.

My evaluation of this trade would be totally based on how good you think this current Pens team can be this year. If you believe they have another cup run in them this year then this is the right move, the D clearly needs a shakeup even if you’re just getting a decent 3rd pair guy and sprong was a future asset not a present one. However that being said I think its way too early to tell what Sprong truly is going to be, I think theres a strong possibility that he ends up being a good top 6 player at some point in his career possibly even a 1st liner, and if you think the glory days are finished then this is probably a bad move,

Yeah, I only took the Lindbolm comp he made as a young player sticking in the NHL, not that the 2 players had all that similar of traits. Good take overall IMO

Here’s my issue. Maybe i’m not explaining it properly. It’s not like I hate this move, or think most of these moves are bad in a vacuum. Most teams with Sid and Geno will have a shot. It’s about maximizing that shot.
Since we decided not to resign Bonino, the roster has gotten progressively worse. Maybe it began when we signed Hainsey.
This is not about blame either. I get that Cullen and Kunitz got old. Hags wasn’t producing in a lineup that suddenly wasn’t so deep anymore.
My concern is if all the moves have harmed us more than helped us in being able to win the cup. Is our best chance with a roster with Oleksiak and Petterson? Can we win? Of course we can win. But are we putting ourself in the best position to win. That’s my only concern as far as discussing it.

Declining Asset Valuation Necessitates Trade ASAP

TBH, Sprong’s asset valuation would have kept on declining the longer he was on the Pens’ roster. There wasn’t much hope he’d crack a top-6 role, and he seems like a terrible bottom-6 player. He’s already teetering on becoming a reclamation project. Glad the Pens were able to get a solid Dman in return. Better than a random second round pick which is where Sprong’s value was headed in a few months.

that’s fair. To get any trade value, they have to ship him before the rest of the hockey world has come to a decision on what they have. Beau and Pouliot we hung on to too long, trying to make work and only got minimum value back. So they’re taking a risk moving him because they don’t have space for him and he’s not doing anything which would force them to create space for him, but they’ll get something of more immediate use back.

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