Bob Grove: Does Mike Sullivan Trust Penguins' Daniel Sprong?

Bob Grove
October 25, 2018 - 10:18 am
Daniel Sprong

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s about time for a pause in the Penguins’ onboarding process for Daniel Sprong, and it would hardly be a surprise if he is a healthy scratch tonight in Calgary.

At this point, there’s little doubt coach Mike Sullivan does not yet trust the 21-year-old right wing, who earned only six shifts and 3:37 of ice time Tuesday in Edmonton – both career lows for a kid who’s played 33 NHL games. Sprong is not contributing, and if Derek Grant can’t get into the lineup now, it’s not clear when he might.

The most recent exclamation point on the Sullivan-Sprong relationship came early in the second period Tuesday, when Sprong was about to tie up the Oilers’ Alex Chiasson behind the Pittsburgh net. Chiasson instead knocked Sprong over, and seconds later Chiasson gave the Oilers their first lead of the night with Sprong nowhere near him as he whipped his own rebound past Matt Murray. Sprong got one more shift.

Sullivan says Sprong, the AHL’s second-leading goal scorer last winter, is a promising player who needs time to develop, but he has yet to be convinced it’s time to invest NHL ice time in the process. Sullivan had coached the Penguins for two games in December 2015, with Sprong playing sparingly in both, when Sprong was returned to junior. Midway through last season, Sprong got a three-week NHL recall in which Sullivan provided him 12-15 minutes on most nights. Sprong had a superb, two-goal effort in Brooklyn against the Islanders but was not noticeable in most of the other seven games and was returned to Wilkes-Barre Scranton.

Sprong has played in all seven games this season but only twice has earned more than eight minutes of ice time on the fourth line, which is not exactly a fertile proving ground for someone trying to make the NHL as a scorer. Problem is, the Penguins don’t believe Sprong has earned a spot farther up the lineup that brings with it increased minutes.

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The onus has clearly been on Sprong to find a way – any way, some way, somehow – to change that dynamic himself by scoring some goals. He hasn’t done it. Going back to last season and including his underwhelming preseason last month, he’s now played 16 consecutive NHL games without scoring a single goal. He’s managed a total of only 15 shots in those games.

Goal counts are important for Sprong, because if he’s going to make it as an everyday NHL player, that’s how he’ll do it. He has a great shot that has carried him all the way to the best league in the world, but it takes a lot more to stay.

If Sprong was exempt from waivers on the way down to the AHL this season, he would not have made the team out of training camp. GM Jim Rutherford said candidly late in camp that they had expected more from him in the preseason, when he played four games with considerable ice time. The rule of thumb for young players trying to make NHL teams out of camp is simple: don’t be average or OK in the preseason. Be outstanding or you’ll be gone. Ask Zach Aston-Reese.

Rather than losing him for nothing on waivers, the Penguins put Sprong in the opening night lineup with a reduced role – always a recipe for problems. Sprong has had only five third-period shifts in the past three games and has just three shots in these seven games – fewest of any forward on the team. He’s got three assists, two at even strength, but Sprong has put himself in a position where every defensive mistake gets magnified and cuts further into his already reduced ice time.

He’s adding next to nothing, and while some will argue that he’s not been given a legitimate chance, the fact is that he hasn’t made his own breaks. Not in the preseason. Not in the regular season. Right now, Sprong can’t wait for someone to open the door for him; he’s got to force it open himself. Given his age, there’s plenty of time for that to happen. But it’s clearly not happening now.