CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Daniel Sprong’s moment is on a silver platter. The Pittsburgh Penguins opened training camp Friday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and Sprong was firmly planted on Sidney Crosby’s right wing through practice and the first-day scrimmage. Riding shotgun with Crosby and Jake Guentzel is a prime opportunity for any player, but Sprong’s tenuous situation and offensive potential make this a big moment for both he and the team.
The Penguins potential top-line trio generated quality chances seemingly on each shift, including when Sprong slipped away from defenders near the net and tapped a neat pass to Crosby, who cut towards the front of the net. It would have been a sure goal but the pass bounced off Crosby’s stick.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now asked Sprong if he chirped Crosby for missing the easy marker.
“No chance,” Sprong chuckled. “I thought I put it a bit too hard and missed him by a bit. But we were creating chances and that was the most important thing.”
Sprong didn’t chirp Crosby and he took responsibility for the missed chance. The 21-year-old forward has little more than one and a half professional seasons experience but is already on his second contract and therefore cannot be sent to WBS Penguins without clearing waivers. He showed up to camp a little faster and with a little more muscle. Sprong appears ready for the opportunity.
When he found out he would be playing with the Penguins aces, Crosby and Guentzel, Sprong had a typical reaction.
“I just smiled. It’s a good opportunity, you know? You want to make a difference in camp and open eyes,” he said. “It was a good first day but it was only one day in camp. There are many days left to go and you have to get better every day.”
Sprong looked and sounded different, Friday. Pittsburgh Hockey Now has spoken with Sprong several times over the past couple years. Like many talented 19 or 20-year-olds, he could seem very sure of himself or unaware of his situation. Yesterday, there was an openness and appreciation tangibly present as he spoke to reporters. It wasn’t that he said the right things, it was how he said the right things.
He wasn’t reading from a script. He was speaking about an extraordinary opportunity, which could be taken away quickly if he doesn’t perform well.
“To his credit, he’s really taking it to heart. He’s made a concerted effort to get better, and he has in some of the areas that we’ve asked him to get better,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “I thought he had a great first day. He’s playing with a couple of very good players, and so I think if he continues to work and play the game that we know he’s capable of playing, then he certainly is going to put himself in a great position to make this roster.”
Sullivan’s last sentence underscored the high risk, high reward stakes of Sprong’s training camp. The Penguins are full. They have NHL caliber players who may not make the NHL roster, such as Jimmy Hayes, Dominik Simon, or Zach Aston-Reese. And if Sprong has a poor camp, he could join those list of players who worry about getting an NHL sweater.
Sidney Crosby also commented on Sprong, “The main thing is him playing his game and being confident in what he needs to do. If there are things we need to work out or iron out, we’ll do it if we have time to.”
One day does not make a camp, nor does a few created scoring chances. However, given Sprong’s previous struggles at the NHL level, the Penguins and Sprong must be encouraged. The Penguins will have time to keep working on Sprong’s play away from the puck and awareness. For now, everyone is aware Sprong has taken a step forward. And that was the story of Day 1.
(PHN’s Shelly Anderson also contributed to this report)