The Daniel Sprong era is nothing but a distant memory for Penguins fans even though he was traded away less than two years ago.
Nearing five years since his NHL debut, Sprong is still somewhat of an unknown in the NHL.
He has played more than eight games in a season just twice. One of those seasons he was 18-years old. The only large sample of playing time came two seasons ago.
Sprong played 42 games in a Penguins sweater before he was shipped to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Marcus Pettersson.
A second round pick in the 2015 entry draft, Sprong was the first player drafted outside the first round to immediately make his club’s opening night roster since Brandon Saad in 2011.
Sprong scored twice and failed to add any helpers in his first 18 NHL games. The Penguins generated no offense to speak of with him on the ice and weren’t great in their own end either. His most common forward linemates were Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino and Kevin Porter.
Because Sprong played 18 games, he lost his waiver-exempt status and the Penguins were forced to send him back to his junior club instead of sending him to the AHL.
Sprong didn’t return to NHL action until the 2017-18 season in which he appeared in eight games. The Penguins controlled 62% of the goals scored and 77% of expected goals with him on the ice at 5v5. He tallied another two goals and added an assist, but they all came in the same game against the New York Islanders.
At season’s end, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford announced that Sprong would be on the opening night roster at the beginning of next season.
Although he started the 2018-19 training camp on Sidney Crosby’s wing, Sprong found himself in a bottom-six role where he shared the ice with Matt Cullen’s rotting corpse, Derek Grant and Dominik Simon more than any other Penguins forwards.
After 16 games in which he failed to score, Sprong was traded.
He went on to play 47 games for the Ducks that season. He scored 14 times and added five helpers, but occasionally found himself as a healthy-scratch despite the Ducks dealing with a rash of injuries and having a weak overall forward group. They were significantly outshot, outchanced and outscored with him on the ice at 5v5.
This past season, Sprong appeared in only eight games before he was traded to the Washington Capitals for defenseman Christian Djoos. He did not dress in a single game for them, but was recently re-signed to a two-year, one-way deal with a $725K annual cap hit.
NEWS | The Washington Capitals have signed forward Daniel Sprong to a two-year contract. https://t.co/b65T1Z8oJs
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) September 18, 2020
The knock on Sprong has always been his play away from the puck, specifically in the defensive zone. There’s no doubt he has a laser of a shot, but the things he does away from the puck make or break his ability to get to the high danger areas of the ice to shoot.
Based off his largest single-season data sample, that narrative is evergreen.
During the 2018-19 season, Sprong scored goals on the individual level at a very strong rate, but his linemates struggled to find the back of the net and he was an abomination defensively.
via JFresh Hockey
Both Evolving Hockey and Hockey Viz agree that Sprong had an above average impact toward generating offense, but any value there was negated by a disastrous impact in the defensive zone.
via Hockey Viz
via Evolving Hockey
It’s possible Sprong might round out his defensive game and become a player that positively impacts his team. Until his defensive impacts are significantly better over the course of a full season, I won’t be sold on it.
Though it was only over the course of 98 minutes of time on ice at even strength, Hockey Viz suggests Sprong was on the right track this past season.
If he doesn’t show signs of defensive improvement by next season, I don’t believe it will ever happen. Waiting on a would-be 25-year old to significantly improve his defensive game is a fool’s errand.
On the other hand, Pettersson has developed into a picture-perfect second pair defenseman for the Penguins.
This past season his defensive impacts were a little better than average and he ranked in the top quarter of the league’s defensemen at generating offense, despite his immensely poor shot.
via JFresh Hockey
It’s hard to want more out of a second pair defenseman. He isn’t especially gifted, but he always seems to make smart decisions with the puck.
Here’s how he stacked up against other Penguins blue liners with at least 400 minutes at 5v5 this past season.
Unlike Penguins management, I don’t believe his ceiling is much higher than what he is right now. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially because players with his style are typically able to carry their above-average impacts through their twenties.
Pettersson was fourth in xGAR (expected goals above replacement) amongst Penguins blue liners this past season.
via Evolving Hockey
At the beginning of next season, Pettersson’s five-year contract extension kicks in with a $4.025M annual cap hit. That’s just about right for a player like him, especially when you consider he is locked up for his age 25-30 seasons.
With John Marino establishing himself as a legitimate defenseman, the Penguins figure to have a strong second pairing for the years ahead.
Though the possibility looms of Sprong getting his act together and scoring 25-goals, the Capitals are going into the season with an experiment that two teams have already given up on.
The Penguins know exactly what they are getting in Pettersson.
For all the mistakes Rutherford made, trading Sprong for Pettersson was not one of them.
Let’s talk hockey on Twitter. Follow me @shireyirving.
All data via Evolving Hockey, Hockey Viz
Viz from JFresh Hockey, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Viz