Top prospect Daniel Sprong slides into 4th-line role with Penguins
When practice ended Tuesday afternoon in Cranberry, coach Mike Sullivan offered a list of caveats as long as his arm.
Training camp is barely half over, he said. The staff just wants to see how some different combinations look. And don’t forget his personal favorite, one he’ll break out dozens of times before the season is over: “Nothing’s ever etched in stone.”
Still, the personnel groupings Sullivan drew up for practice brought into a focus a potentially harsh reality for top prospect Daniel Sprong.
There’s a very real chance the 21-year-old winger isn’t going to be slotted into one of the team’s top three lines on opening night. It’s entirely possible – maybe even likely – that he’s going to have to start at the bottom and work his way up.
Sprong skated on the fourth line with left wing Matt Cullen and center Riley Sheahan on Tuesday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. The spot he previously occupied on the top line with Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby for much of training camp was filled by Patric Hornqvist.
“That was the mindset coming into camp, starting low and trying to finish as high as possible,” Sprong said. “Of course (Guentzel, Crosby and Hornqvist) have been playing with each other for a long time. I’m excited to get to work with Cully and Riley if that’s the case.”
If the Penguins plan to use their fourth line in a traditional way this season, a move to the fourth line could be a significant setback for Sprong, a gifted offensive player who produced a point per game in the AHL last year.
If Sprong plays six minutes a game in a checking role, his talents will be wasted and it will be difficult for him to develop further as a player.
There are indications, however, that the Penguins don’t plan to use their fourth line that way.
An offseason plan to improve their forward depth left Sullivan with more offensively attractive options at the bottom of his lineup than he had a year ago. Instead of filling two-thirds of the fourth line with enforcer Ryan Reaves and shot blocker Tom Kuhnhackl, he can turn to Cullen and Sheahan instead.
Both are probably known more for their defense, but Cullen has hit double digits in goals 16 times in his NHL career and Sheahan had 32 points in 73 games with the Penguins last season.
It’s not like Sprong would be out there with Craig Adams and Tanner Glass.
“Honestly, I think the way our team plays, if you don’t have (a scoring) mentality, you’re going to be flat-footed and you’re not effective in our system,” Cullen said. “We’re looking to pressure pucks and get in on pucks and spend time in the offensive zone and ideally create offense off of that.”
While never admitting that Tuesday’s combinations are the ones he has planned for the Oct. 4 opener against Washington, Sullivan did say that he has no philosophical qualms with a idea of a young scorer starting on the fourth line and working his way up.
“I’m not opposed to it at all,” Sullivan said. “I’d like to think we’ve created an environment here where all our players have to earn their ice time and earn their opportunities. You look at the last few years, no one’s been handed anything here. Everybody’s earned every opportunity they’ve been given through their performance and through their body of work.”
In general, Sullivan said he thinks Sprong has had an “up and down” camp thus far. Sprong didn’t necessarily disagree with his coach’s assessment.
“I would say, over the last three games, I was happy with some areas of my game and disappointed with the other parts,” Sprong said. “Two (exhibition) games left to figure everything out and get ready for the season.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at email@example.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.