Penguins' Mike Sullivan: Daniel Sprong needed more than upside
When discussing why talented, 21-year-old winger Daniel Sprong was never able to gain a foothold with the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Mike Sullivan stuck to the big picture Tuesday morning.
He didn’t enumerate any of the deficiencies he may have noticed in Sprong’s game. He didn’t note anything Sprong did or didn’t do in practice or during the limited ice time he received in games.
Sprong was traded to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Marcus Pettersson on Monday afternoon, in large part, because the coach thought a lineup without him gave the Penguins a better chance to win than a lineup with him.
“As I sit with our coaching staff every day, before every game, and we talk about lineup decisions and roster decisions, regardless of the position, the question I also pose to them is, ‘Which combinations give us the best chance to win? Who’s deserving of the opportunities based on their performance and what they’ve been able to accomplish?’” Sullivan said.
Evidently, Sprong was rarely the answer to the question.
Sprong played in 16 of the team’s 25 games this season, usually on the fourth line. In an average of less than 9 minutes of ice time per game, he had no goals, four assists and a minus-7 rating.
That’s not the kind of stat line that generally knocks an established player out of a spot among the top nine forwards.
“When you look at the competition that Daniel was up against for some of the roles on this team, the competition is stiff,” Sullivan said.
The young players who have managed to gain a top-nine spot – Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon, to name two – have produced more than Sprong.
“When you look at the team that we have and the opportunities that have been presented to players, they’ve earned their spots,” Sullivan said. “They’ve earned their way onto the roster. They’ve earned their playing time.”
In fairness to Sprong, his numbers would have undoubtedly looked a whole lot better if he had been played in more advantageous spots in the lineup. To get the most out of him, Sullivan probably would have had to put Sprong alongside a top-six center and live with the consequences, positive and negative.
Ultimately, those weren’t growing pains Sullivan was willing to endure.
“We all recognize that Daniel has a lot of talent,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to walk the line of trying to develop players but we’re also trying to win hockey games. We’re in the business to try to win, and that’s what we try to do.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.