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Kingerski: Time for Penguins to Move On From Daniel Sprong

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It’s time for the Pittsburgh Penguins to move on from the current Daniel Sprong situation. For their sake and his.

A trade or attempting to send Sprong to the minors is the best thing for all involved. Sprong’s stock has slipped so far, it is no longer a given that another team would claim him on waivers if the Penguins attempted to send him to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In fact, no team concerned with winning could give Sprong a regular sweater.

The Penguins only hope to get something out of Sprong in the future is to send him to minors and let him play, now. They’re just not going to be able to develop him at the NHL level. He’s too far away.

Sprong, 21, has played 44 33 NHL games but has not yet shown to be an NHL player. Actually, it’s not even close. And now as the Penguins season moves to more competitive games, Sprong has spent nearly as much time on the bench in the second and third periods as an assistant coach. He was unceremoniously nailed to the pine Tuesday in Edmonton just one minute into the second period after an egregious defensive zone error.

Sprong has struggled not with the complexities of the Penguins systems or the rigors of the top professional league, but with hockey fundamentals. For example, Tuesday he looped away from defensive responsibilities. His broken coverage directly led to Alex Chaisson’s first shot then rebound goal.

It’s clear Sprong has frustrated coaches. Just seven games into this season, coaches have begun to shorten the bench and remove Sprong from close hockey games.

“It’s a little bit of a two-way street. We’re trying to put guys on the ice who give us the best chance to have success in certain situations,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said.

For the record, the Penguins coaches didn’t believe the middle of the second period on a Tuesday in October was a situation Sprong could help the team or was good for his development.

It’s time to move on from the current situation. For both parties.

The Penguins have better candidates waiting in the wings. Zach Aston-Reese, 24, became a staple of the roster last season. His ice time fluctuated with his performance, but he was never grounded and forced to watch the other kids playing hockey. As the Penguins look to cycle the puck more and exert their superior combination of speed and size, Aston-Reese is not only a better fit but a better player.

Ryan Haggerty, 25, was one of the best forwards in training camp. He put up 37 points in 47 games in his fourth AHL season, which became something of a breakout season.

Let’s be clear, playing Sprong on the top line or giving him top-six minutes will in no way improve his game or benefit the Penguins. A baseball prospect struggling with major league pitching doesn’t bat clean up to get more at-bats. A football rookie doesn’t get more plays if he struggles with the plays he’s already given.

No, Sprong on the top line would be an absolute disaster which does more harm to both parties. The belief that such a move would help is rooted in traditional hockey roles in which top lines tried to score, and fourth lines were there to stop them or grind away. However, one lasting change the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins foisted upon the NHL was four lines playing the same style with speed and an intention to score.

In other words, Sprong will play the same game on a line with Matt Cullen as he would with Sidney Crosby but do so with lesser competition as the Penguins match their top line against opponents top line and their fourth line typically draws the opponents fourth line. Drop Srpong in the deep end of the pool and he would certainly be underwater, immediately.

And no matter what either side says, Sprong’s confidence will be damaged if this current situation continues.

The situation to Sprong is unfair. He should have two more years of waiver exemption. He should be further learning the game on the Penguins AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at his own pace and he should not be battling for NHL ice time on a team which includes right wings Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel, and Bryan Rust.

With any luck, Sprong would go unclaimed and toil in WBS until he is ready while the Penguins get NHL contributions from Aston-Reese or Derek Grant. Or even Haggerty.

Or another team with space and time will claim Sprong and the player will get to develop in a better situation. The current Penguins would not miss out and there is increasingly strong data to suggest Sprong is not an NHL player in the future, either.

So why prolong the difficulty for both sides? It’s time to make the decision.

Editors note: Daniel Sprong’s NHL game tally was corrected from 44 to 33 in the fourth paragraph.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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