What to do with Daniel Sprong?
The Pittsburgh Penguins off-season began one month ago. Players have had time to sleep, rest and hop aboard Phil Kessel’s new boat. Now, the NHL off-season has officially begun and trade talks leading up to the NHL Draft June 22-23 will intensify. Jim Rutherford will undoubtedly be a part of those talks.
The Penguins prospect Sprong is no longer waiver exempt. His time in the minors is over unless no NHL team is willing to gamble a roster spot on a 21-year-old, point-per-game player in the AHL with a wicked shot but a discombobulated defensive awareness. So the Penguins have only a few options remaining.
The Penguins could hang on, hope Sprong cracks the NHL roster and is a capable, positive contributor whose defense significantly improves. They could make an assuredly losing bet they can sneak Sprong through waivers to allow him to further marinate in the AHL. Or, they could deal him. His trade value will be higher now than if he fails to make the team in October.
Option three is probably the safest. Option one could be the best. Welcome to the game of chicken.
Daniel Sprong Trade Bait?
Trade bait means other teams are willing to offer something as valuable or more valuable in exchange for the asset. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford stated the Penguins have players “other teams want”, but do the Penguins want to part with those players?
The Penguins have needs but not many trade chips to fill those needs and not enough salary cap space to hit the free agent market with a splash. Other than Sprong, the Penguins tradeable assets include Phil Kessel, Conor Sheary, and perhaps Carl Hagelin.
Sheary had solid underlying analytics but a paltry 30-point season. He will not bring substantial value back to the Penguins. Hagelin’s elite speed and work with Evgeni Malkin proved most valuable and would be difficult to replace. Hagelin adds more value to the Penguins than he would likely bring in return (and the same goes for Bryan Rust).
So, we’re back to Sprong and Kessel.
It seems to be a recipe for disaster for a team which struggled defensively to roll with a pair of right wings who are defensive liabilities. Nay, at times nightmares. High scoring teams can afford one such player. But two? Scoring 100 points does not help if the player’s lack of responsibility leads to 101 goals-against.
This town may not be big enough for the both of them.
The Penguins are no longer the best team in the Eastern Conference. In fact, they may not be in the top three. And, other Metro Division teams like the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers are getting better. The Penguins will always have a puncher’s chance with Sidney Crosby and Malkin but, last season, the Penguins lack of productive wing play and lack of defensive responsibility were fatal.
The Penguins absolute lack of physicality and mediocre wall play from their wings didn’t help much, either. As teams in the Eastern Conference have increased their game speed to play with the Penguins, physical play is again gaining importance. Anyone who watched the Washington Capitals use that part of their game to great advantage in the Eastern Conference Final and the Stanley Cup Final will recognize the boost it gave them and the momentum it took from their opponents.
So, if Sprong cannot fill the above needs, and in fact may exacerbate the situation, it makes sense that Sprong becomes the bait.
Sprong could be an NHL All-Star, or a journeyman who toils in European leagues with fearsome offensive skill from the perimeter. Or neither. The Penguins are out of time to allow Sprong to develop at his own pace.
In fact, given the trade talk which surrounds Kessel, the Penguins have a pair of choices. But it’s probably an either-or situation. Keeping Kessel and Sprong is unlikely to yield more favorable results (this isn’t 1985) than obtaining balance by acquiring assets to fill other needs. So, trading one makes logical sense.
Perhaps the Penguins could flip Sprong as part of a package for another talented struggling player. Ahem, Arizona?
Or the Penguins could lose Sprong for nothing, which doesn’t seem to be a good option either. The Daniel Sprong game of chicken is underway. The NHL Draft is eight days away.