Daniel Sprong needs to round out his game before coming to the Penguins full time
The Penguins are struggling to score even-strength goals.
On a five-game western road trip that concluded with a 4-2 loss to Vancouver on Saturday night, they went 1-3-1 and scored a total of three goals in five-on-five situations.
In times like these, it's perfectly natural to turn some attention to the northeast corner of the state, where one of the top goal-scoring prospects in hockey is playing. Coming into Sunday's action, Daniel Sprong was tied for second in the AHL with seven goals in nine games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
There's no reason to believe the Penguins won't carve out a spot in their lineup for Sprong at some point to provide an offensive jump-start. By any standard, his shot and puck skills already are NHL caliber.
But there's also a good reason the call hasn't already come. Sprong still has some work to do to round out his game.
“I think they know what I can bring on the offensive side,” Sprong said during training camp. “On the defensive side, I gotta show that I'm more responsible and keep working hard and see where it goes.”
It's a vast oversimplification to say Sprong is in Wilkes-Barre just to work on his defensive game.
He already can cover a point man and hustle on the backcheck. Anyone can do that, assistant general manager Bill Guerin said.
“He's got to control that urge to just go when the right thing to do is come into your own end and just stop,” Guerin said. “It's decision-making.”
Sprong is in the midst of a common transition for junior hockey scoring sensations. With Charlottetown of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Sprong's role was to score goals. Period. He was good at it, too, netting 32 of them in 31 regular-season games last year. He wasn't asked to play an all-around game.
“Those coaches, they have a difficult job,” Guerin said. “They've got a team full of 16-, 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds. It's difficult. It's like herding cats. When you get a talented guy that can do a lot of good things for your team, you use him.
“So many kids are so talented that by the end of their junior hockey career, it's easy for them. They can do whatever they want. There are bad habits. Bad habits have to be curbed.”
Before he graduates to the NHL full time, Sprong has to learn to impact the game when the puck's not on his stick. And again, that doesn't mean simply covering the point in the defensive zone.
“Can he push the other team's ‘D' back with speed and make room for other players? Will you drive to the net? Will you go to the right spots in offensive-zone play?” Guerin said. “It's things like that.”
The Penguins aren't trying to turn Sprong into a fourth-line grinder.
“You don't want to make him something he's not,” Guerin said. “You don't want to take Josh Archibald and make him something he's not, either. You can't. That's what they are. You just have to build their game a little bit more, give them more of a foundation.”
The Penguins are trying to build Sprong's game to the point where coach Mike Sullivan will be comfortable writing his name on an NHL lineup card on a nightly basis.
“Sully commands it from all of his players,” Guerin said. “It's a high compete level. It's a high compete level at the right time. You might have to battle a guy or compete extremely hard for a 50-50 puck just to get it out of the zone. Not to make a great play, just to get it out.
“You have to ensure us that you're going to get the puck out of your own end. Make us feel comfortable that with three minutes to go in the third period with a one-goal lead that you're not going to turn the puck over just because you want to go for it. Those are sacrifices that younger players have to learn.”