Like a lot of the NHL’s youngest and least experienced players, Penguins right winger Daniel Sprong rarely smiles, rarely strays from the company line during interviews with reporters.
He made an exception – he couldn’t help himself – Sunday morning when one particular topic was brought up.
“I haven’t gotten pranked yet, so, hopefully, that stays that way,” Sprong said with a grin.
Rookies – Sprong still qualifies despite playing in 18 games with the Penguins in 2015-16 – often face certain initiation pratfalls from their older teammates. Locker room code discourages the youngsters from returning the favor.
Sometimes, rookies and near-rookies pay their teams back in much richer ways. It’s possible Sprong, 20, is on the verge of doing just that.
Sprong not only is setting himself up as one of those young, exuberant types who have proven critical to Penguins championship seasons (more on that in a bit), but he has also been impressive in a small sample size playing on the top line with Sidney Crosby.
Count Crosby among those who are impressed with his wingers the past two games, Sprong and fellow rookie Dominik Simon.
“Spronger’s got a great shot,” Crosby said. “Dom sees the ice well and makes little plays. We’ve had some good shifts out there.”
Daniel Sprong to Center Stage
The hockey world noticed Friday when Sprong had two goals and an assist, Crosby a goal and three assists, and Simon two assists in a 4-0 road win against the New York Islanders.
Sprong’s first goal came off of a pass from Crosby on a two-on-one, a play made easier because Sprong is a right-hand shot. His second was a sniper’s goal, when he picked a spot for a far-side rising blast.
The three new linemates have been seen huddling over an iPad on the Penguins bench, Crosby maneuvering the screen as they go over plays and devise new ways to torture opponents.
Crosby, 30, has been able to feed off of Sprong and Simon’s youthful drive as much as their talent.
“When a guy comes in, that urgency, you can’t replace that. That’s something that’s going to be there right away,” Crosby said, then grinned as he sounded just a tad jealous of one other thing that youth brings.
“I’m not getting any faster, either, so it helps to have young speed, young legs,” he said.
Sprong, a second-round pick in the 2015 draft, has a bigger upside than Simon in the long term, and Sprong seems to understand that despite success at lower levels he is at the bottom of his career curve when it comes to the NHL
“When I was down in Wilkes, I was the youngest guy there, too,” he said of AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “I’m used to being the young guy. It’s exciting. But I’m just happy to be here and try to help the team.”
To put Sprong’s youth in perspective, check out his answer when he talked about improving the defensive aspect of his game, a prime prerogative and one of the things that kept the organization from promoting him to the NHL earlier.
“It’s been getting a lot better since I was 16 in juniors. I think I’ve matured a lot on that side of the puck, especially the last two years,” he said.
That’s believable, based on these first five games this season. But consider that Sprong’s reference point in the improvement in his game traces to him being barely old enough to drive.
Sid and the Kids Part 1
Jake Guentzel, who filled a similar role to Sprong’s last season, remembers what it’s like.
“When you’re coming up and you’re younger, you’ve got those nervous feelings,” Guentzel said. “I think the older guys welcome you and make you feel comfortable.
“(Sprong and Simon) are both confident, and they’re both playing really well. That’s been huge for us. We hope to keep them going because the way they’ve been playing has been pretty special.”
As a rookie last year after a mid-season call-up, Guentzel proved to be an important part of the team’s run to its second straight Stanley Cup. He and Conor Sheary often joined Crosby to form the Sid & The Kids line (this year’s version with Sprong and Simon is being called Sid & The Kids 2.0).
In fact, a key young player or a handful of them have been instrumental in all five Penguins championships.
Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and goalie Matt Murray, broke through to the NHL level as the Penguins won in 2016.
In 2009, several of the team’s core players were 22 or younger, including Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Tyler Kennedy.
When they won their first two Cups in the early 1990s, the Penguins had youngsters such as Jaromir Jagr and Mark Recchi, who went on to have, oh, a bit of NHL success.
It’s unknown how long Sprong will stick on Crosby’s wing, and even a great run by him during the second half of the season wouldn’t ensure a Penguins threepeat, but he seems poised to join a pretty good history of youngsters.
(Tomorrow: A look at the other end of the spectrum — the value of the more experienced veterans and what the Penguins might need to add before the trade deadline.)