CRANBERRY, Pa. — Understand, this was a players-only, no-coaches, pre-training camp practice. Nothing official. Not a statement coming from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top stars.
Still, it was interesting Tuesday to see Daniel Sprong skating with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a line for a bit during a scrimmage at the Lemieux UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. This was after the ersatz top line was Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel (yeah, that’s not going to happen in-season), and before Malkin left the scrimmage after taking a stick to the facial area (relax; Crosby later said Malkin seemed to be OK).
There will be several monitored storylines at camp, which opens Friday. Sprong owns one of the more intriguing. The winger is 21 now, and perhaps at the put-up-or-ship-out stage of his Penguins career. He is at the start of a two-year contract with a $750,000 salary cap hit and would require waivers to be sent to American Hockey League affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where he spent most of last season.
So, will the sniper who was a second-round draft pick in 2015 be Kessel Light? Derrick Pouliot redux? Or, the Penguins certainly hope, a valuable, contributing winger who doesn’t float and is not a liability defensively?
“You always want to open eyes and have a good camp,” Sprong said.
With a glut of centers and a jigsaw puzzle awaiting coach Mike Sullivan as far as line combinations, it’s unclear where Sprong will fit in. His performance likely will help determine that. Perhaps it will be on a top line. It would seem he would fit better with Crosby than Malkin, but not both as was the case for several shifts Tuesday.
“I think I was just lucky to get out there with them in the scrimmage, but it was fun,” Sprong said.
He helped heap a high level of expectations on himself by making the club at the start of the 2015-16 season out of his first Penguins camp, but he had just two goals, no assists in 18 games, with several healthy scratches before he was sent back to junior hockey. After undergoing shoulder surgery in the 2016 offseason, he dominated in a shortened 2016-17 with the Charlottetown Islanders with 32 goals, 59 points in 31 games and was a taxi-squad spectator for the Penguins Stanley Cup run.
Maturing In The ‘A’
Last season, he got another look-see with the Penguins, getting two goals and an assist in eight games, but then was relegated to Wilkes-Barre for the rest of the season. There were hot and cold streaks, but in 65 games he racked up 32 goals, 33 assists, 65 points to lead the club in all three categories.
While others got the call to move up to the NHL, Sprong remained.
“In the moment you kind of want to be up here, you want to play, but if I look back after the season, I was really happy with my year and how I developed as a player in the ‘A’,” he said.
Wilkes-Barre coach Clark Donatelli this summer championed the decision to hold Sprong to the AHL.
“In the long run, Daniel’s going to have a fine year because of the situation in Wilkes-Barre (last season),” Donatelli said. “He stayed down there and he played. He had some hard times and he persevered through it and he grew as a pro.
“I think his progression over the year was great — his details and his habits, the defensive side of the puck. We all know Daniel can score a lot of goals. He’s going to score a lot of goals. But his one-on-one battles, his preparation on and off the ice, how he worked in the gym, I think it was a great learning experience for him to go through that process. I think he’s going to have a really good year.”
‘A Good Summer In The Gym’
General manager Jim Rutherford said months ago that Sprong would be a part of the NHL roster. If that put pressure on Sprong, he did not let it hinder his offseason.
Sprong spent the summer in Montreal, where his family moved to from The Netherlands when he was 7 so he could pursue a hockey career. He worked out with a group that included – probably was headed by – teammate Kris Letang, the defenseman who is known for his intense, rigorous workout habits. Also in the group were Anthony Duclair of Columbus, Jakub Voracek of Philadelphia and, at times, Derick Brassard of the Penguins.
Penguins strength and conditioning coach Alexie Pianosi visited for a few days, too.
“I think I put on more muscle and worked on my speed and just getting ready for the season,” Sprong said. “We had a good group of guys. We were all pushing each other. It was a good summer in the gym.”
The shoulder surgery and long playoff runs recently made this a summer Sprong could jump on.
“It was my first real summer (in a while) that I had time to work on everything — I didn’t have to rush things – and really go through each phase,” he said. “I was happy with that. I’m still young and maturing.”
Getting motivated by a workout beast such as Letang didn’t hurt.
“He was a fun guy to watch in the gym,” Sprong said. “He pushes guys. It was good looking up to him in the gym and seeing what he did.”
Letang took notice.
“He likes to compete,” Letang said of Sprong. “He’s really good in the gym. He’s a kid that wants to be the best. He works really hard. It’s fun to have a young guy that tries to push you. He has a good attitude when he comes to the gym.
“I tried to push him. Even if I’m a little bit older than him, I try to be on top, so I try to be hard on (the others).”
Sprong is fully aware of the skepticism from outside the organization over whether he will reach his potential and the criticism of his defensive play and other aspects beyond his shot.
He’s not listening.
“I think there’s always going to be criticism,” he said. “Every player gets criticized for something. We try to take those things out of our minds and just play the game we know how to play.”