Sprong’s return to Pittsburgh brings his rookie season full circle

By Tony Androckitis
Daniel Sprong - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Pittsburgh Penguins rookie forward Daniel Sprong competed at three different levels of the game in 2015-16, spending time in the QMJHL, AHL, and NHL (courtesy of Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

It was quite a memorable first season of professional hockey for Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Daniel Sprong.

After starting the season in the NHL with Pittsburgh, being re-assigned back to Charlottetown in the QMJHL and then returning to the pro ranks in the AHL for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ postseason run, Sprong is hoping he has learned enough about going through adversity and taking things in stride to make a run at the NHL next fall.

He has re-joined the NHL club as a member of the ‘Black Aces’ squad following Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s elimination in the Atlantic Division Finals last week.

“I really developed as a player this year,” Sprong said during his final media interview with the AHL Penguins on exit day. “It’s been a crazy ride, but at the end of the day I made progress as far as my development.”

As an 18 year old rookie, Sprong began the season in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, making the team out of training camp under then-head coach Mike Johnston. After two goals in his first nine games, Sprong’s production and ice time halted before management made the decision to return him to his junior team in the QMJHL in mid-December to get him more playing time.

“Spending this time in the NHL has been a good development experience for Daniel,” Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford said in the team’s press release back on December 19th. “But it’s important for him to have more playing time,” he added of Sprong, who tallied two goals in 18 NHL games with Pittsburgh this season.

That is exactly what happened upon his arrival to the Charlottetown Islanders. Sprong’s ice time and production sky-rocketed to the tune of 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) in 33 regular season games, which continued into the QMJHL playoffs as Sprong was the second-leading scorer on his team with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 12 postseason contests.

After Charlottetown’s playoff run ended, Sprong was again on the move, joining the Penguins’ AHL affiliate just in time for their first round series against the Providence Bruins.

Upon his arrival, it was an up-and-down 10 games for the Penguins’ second round pick (46th overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft. After being held off the scoresheet in his AHL debut in Game 1 against the AHL Bruins, his turnover in the first period of Game 2 gave Providence an early 1-0 lead.

Instead of letting the bad play get the best of him, Sprong remained focused and turned in his best game as a pro, tallying two goals – including the game-winning goal in overtime – to lift the Penguins to a Game 2 win before tallying a goal and an assist in a series-clinching Game 3 win.

Sprong wasn’t done there, either. After over a week layoff while waiting for their second round opponent, Sprong tallied two more goals in Game 1 of the Penguins’ second round series against the Hershey Bears in a 4-0 win – giving him six points (five goals, one assists) in his first four AHL playoff games.

Unfortunately for the Penguins, Sprong cooled off in the remaining six games (one assist) of the second round and saw his ice time begin to diminish towards the end of the series, including a Game 7 overtime loss that ended Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s season.

Still, Sprong considered his wild ride of a rookie year a success.

“It’s been a great experience,” Sprong recalled after the Penguins’ AHL playoff run ended. “In all three leagues I learned something different.”

“In the NHL, I learned the ropes and see how it is to be an NHL player every day,” Sprong said, adding, “In juniors I learned how to be more of a leader. That was really good for my development [in the AHL], seeing the older guys and getting the playoff action.”

The goal remains the same for Sprong as he joined the NHL Penguins for depth during their current NHL playoff run. He wants to be a full-time NHL player next fall.

“I think so,” Sprong replied when asked if he now feels more ready for the NHL. “You never know what happens in training camp. I have a big summer ahead of me. I have to get bigger in the gym, stronger and faster,” he added, stating he is staying in Montreal this summer to train in the offseason.

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey