In the Fall of 2013, a young Finnish defenseman by the name of Olli Maatta forced the hand of the Pittsburgh Penguins coaching staff. The youngster showed up to camp, leaped over highly touted defensive prospects like Simon Despres, and made everyone take note of his performance. He started playing increased time in camp, moved on to a nine game tryout then became a team mainstay. This, however, is incredibly rare. Plenty of NHL talent comes into camp and impresses only to be returned to their junior teams for more seasoning. As outside observers we see camps, especially following the success stories, differently. We see guys who are impressive and want them to stick around. This isn’t wrong but it won’t necessarily work. For 9 out of every 10 cases it is ideal to go back to junior for these just-drafteds.
This year however, the team may just have another one of those 1 in 10 cases. This special case focuses on a young Penguins forward. Daniel Sprong, a Dutch-born hockey player who plays junior for the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) is a natural scoring right-shooting winger. When the Penguins took him with their first pick of the 2015 draft, in the second round at 46th overall, they were flabbergasted. The staff has even come out multiple times saying they were simply floored the Dutchman was still on the table.
What makes him special though? Well a lot of things. He’s got quick release and feet. He can track the puck and has enough offensive talent for two forwards. His downside? Defensive lapses. As is common with some of the more skilled forwards, think Alex Ovechkin, it’s easy to kind of overlook defense and focus on playing with the puck in the offensive zone. The Penguins will have to work with the youngster on this but playing alongside forwards like Pascal Dupuis and Nick Bonino has probably already helped.
In a brilliant display during one particular pre-season game against the Detroit Red Wings, which the Penguins lost 7-2, he made no less than four Wings players look silly on his way to a goal. Split the D? Check. Zip around another player like a pylon? Check. Beauty of a goal? Check.
But that’s not all he brings. With every mention of how good he’s been comes the inevitable, he’s only 18! Like that’s some sort of reason in and of itself why he shouldn’t make the team. However, like Maatta proved before him, sometimes age really is just a number. The team and anyone who has been around him at camp say, and this may sound familiar because it’s what is often said about Maatta, he doesn’t act like he’s 18. He doesn’t behave or play or have the mind set of a typical just-drafted player.
Sprong led his QMJHL (also known as the Q) team in both goals and assists last season. He’s mentally not a teenager to most and simply has reached his peak at the junior level. He can go back to the Q, but he’ll just continue to make everyone there look silly. It won’t help him improve and it won’t help him grow. It won’t help him learn to play defensively against bigger competition to keep smaller forwards in check. This is the plain and simple truth for guys like him. In fact, if he did return to the Q it may just stunt his progress.
Ideally then, he would go to the American Hockey League and get some time in there. He’d work with the new coaching staff and probably sit highly ranked on the call-up list for fill-ins needed for injury or illness purposes. He’d probably even be added to the team as a black ace in the post-season to be a part of the team during a playoff push. Maybe he’d play in the spring like we’ve seen players like Brandon Saad and Tuevo Teravainen do recently.
However, that isn’t an option. Because of an agreement/rule between the junior leagues in Canada and the NHL, Sprong would have to be returned to the Q, he can’t go to the AHL. Simply put, it’s stay or go back to junior with Sprong. The possibility of the junior league stunting his growth, coupled with the lackluster intensity of previously beloved guys like Scott Wilson this camp, means that given the two options the best one, at least for the immediate future, might just be stay.
The reason why he was not taken in the first round, like his prodigious skill would suggest, was a perceived attitude problem. Not unlike another player on this Penguins squad (see: Kessel, Philip) there was talk that Sprong didn’t want to learn this or that. If that’s the case no one told the Penguins and no one told Sprong. The Dutchman, instead, is highly popular with his teammates. He takes the gentle ribbing that comes with being a rookie in stride and he works hard.
All of these are attributes the team could use to have around. All of these plus the scary shot that Sprong said he’s spent hours working on and perfecting? That’s why this kid should stay for his nine-game regular season tryout and perhaps even beyond it.