Daniel Sprong opens Penguins camp in prime position
Daniel Sprong couldn’t hide his grin for long.
Yes, it was just the first day of training camp. Yes, the lineup could change a hundred times before the Pittsburgh Penguins open the regular season Oct. 4 against the Washington Capitals.
But when he arrived at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Friday morning and saw his name slotted alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel’s on the team’s top line, he couldn’t conceal his excitement.
“I just smiled,” Sprong said. “It’s a good opportunity. You want to make a difference in camp and open eyes.”
Sprong’s inclusion on the top line at the start of camp is eye-opening because of what it is and what it isn’t.
It is a testament to Sprong’s talent.
He hasn’t been the organization’s top goal-scoring prospect for years for no reason. Sprong’s shot has been NHL-caliber since before he made the Penguins roster at age 18 in 2015.
He was a goal-per-game scorer in juniors two years ago and a point-per-game performer in the AHL last season. When it comes to producing offense, he’s legit. The line could end up being dynamite.
“He’s skilled. He’s got a great shot,” Crosby said. “That with a lot of youth and energy, I think it’s a good combination.”
It is not, however, an admission by coach Mike Sullivan that Sprong is the frontrunner to keep the spot until opening night.
Sullivan was careful to explain why he put Sprong on the line Friday. It wasn’t necessarily because the coaching staff feels that’s the best trio it could cobble together.
Sullivan’s motivation was to give Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese, who played on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, a chance to show what they can do.
It’s an opportunity, not a projection.
“If he continues to work and play the game he’s capable of playing, he’s certainly going to put himself in a great position to make this roster,” Sullivan said. “He’s a very talented player.”
It seems safe to say Sprong will have to excel in a couple of key areas to keep the job.
The first is defense.
As it stands, Crosby is the most responsible defensive player on his line. Ideally, he would be freed from that burden and allowed to focus more on scoring.
“I don’t dread it,” Crosby said. “It’s a little bit nicer when you have somebody like a (Pascal) Dupuis who absolutely loves backchecking. I’m not going to lie. I’ve never seen someone so excited to backcheck and track the puck.”
Could he talk Guentzel into being that guy?
“No, no. Not going to be able to convince him,” Crosby said. “We’re going to have to do it by committee.”
Sprong will have to be part of that committee.
He also will have to play well without the puck in the offensive zone, making sure he’s in the right areas to provide support.
That’s a deficiency in his game Sprong takes very seriously and is making every effort to shore up.
“That’s what the coaches, when I got sent down, (said) they wanted me to do a better job of,” Sprong said. “Just working on trying to understand (Crosby) better and where he wants me to be for the opportunity to shoot or make a play or give him the space.”
If Aston-Reese, meanwhile, sticks with Malkin and Kessel on the second line, it’ll be because he’s the one doing the dirty work in the corners and behind the net. It’s a role the 6-foot, 204-pound hard-nosed left wing is more than happy to play.
“I think just being able to get in on the forecheck, win battles, win pucks, then give it to those guys. That’s half the job,” Aston-Reese said. “The other part is getting open and finding quiet areas and getting to the net and being aware when the puck comes to the net.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.