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During the Penguins’ 6-5 overtime win over Boston on Jan. 7, Sidney Crosby carried the puck up the ice on a 2-on-1 rush with Daniel Sprong.

Crosby tried to thread a pass over, but the play was broken up by Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk. When they returned to the bench, Crosby pulled out an iPad and talked through what had happened with Sprong.

“Just on the 2-on-1, he wanted me to slow down a bit,” Sprong said. “I asked him at what point he wants me to slow down and we read off the D, so it’s good that we’re talking a lot and I think that really helps. I was kind of behind him so I didn’t have the chance to go all the way to the back, so that’s when I’ve just got to pull up a little bit and make it easier for him.”

Having a teaching moment like that, during a game, in real time, wasn’t possible before the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, which is when the NHL made a deal with Apple to deliver video and data to the bench on a tablet. They decided to use a system called iBench, which is powered by a company called XOS Digital.

Many teams, including the Penguins, were already using XOS Digital’s video platform called Thunder Hockey to capture in-game feeds for hockey operations use, so it made sense to use the same company to stream video on the iPads.

The buildings of all 16 playoff teams were outfitted, which was a process considering the iPads have to operate on the same WiFi as the fans in the arena. They situated the access points and bandwidth usage, and as teams got eliminated, they were able to narrow their focus. It worked so well that they decided to expand it to all 31 buildings this summer, which was a big undertaking, but a big success.

“A lot of people thought they were crazy to think they would start it at the playoffs last year, but it was a pretty good time to try it,” said Brant Berglund, director of hockey products for XOS Digital. “It was something no one was dependent upon, it wasn’t mission critical at that point. People could pick it up and use it or leave it alone for now until they were more comfortable. A lot of teams really jumped in, particularly the two teams that made it to the Final.”

Obviously, the Penguins were one of those teams, and it was important to head coach Mike Sullivan that they embrace the new technology.

“Mike Sullivan said at a users’ conference this summer something along the lines of, ‘we knew it would give us a competitive advantage if we were good at it and a disadvantage if we weren’t, so we decided to invest the time and figure out how it would work the best,’” Berglund said. “That’s a credit to Mike, who’s always been a progressive thinker.”

Basically, this is how they work: Penguins video coach Andy Saucier captures the feed from the TV production truck on one of the computers in his office. The signal that he gets is then streamed out to those access points that are set up right behind the bench, and the iPads grab their feeds from there.

The iPads are set up like DVRs with controls at the bottom – for example, forward 10 seconds, forward five seconds, fast forward, slow motion. Whoever’s using it can simply take their finger and just buffer through the timeline. It’s not quite immediately available, but there’s only about a 5-10 second delay.

“It’s definitely the simplicity of the iPad and the platform itself that really accentuates the quickness that these guys can use it,” Berglund said. “We make the app and the NHL lays the groundwork for the connectivity and consistency of the signal, but the iPad is really the driving force behind all of it in terms of the ability to quickly navigate and use the Apple toolset. It’s been a pretty good marriage between all three.”

In addition, during a game, Saucier is tagging everything and making a bunch of clips. For example, when the Penguins score a goal, he presses a button and the play rolls back a certain number of seconds and forward a certain number of seconds. Since the iPads are tied into the program Saucier is using, that will be displayed on the tablet on the bench as a ticker mark in the timeline.

“It’s easy when you’re just watching from either up top or on the TVs, you can see the whole ice,” Saucier said. “But for them, they’re out there and it’s a different view, so all of a sudden they can see it on video right after their shift is over. They can see what’s available or they can see maybe where they have an opportunity to make a play or something like that. They really like it.”

Last spring, it was Rick Tocchet who was the coach in charge of using the iPads. This year, it’s Mark Recchi.

“They’re great for the coaching staff because we can go back and look at teaching points with the guys,” Recchi said. “Sometimes we get caught up talking to guys and something happens, or Sully might see something and he says, ‘take a look at that and I’ll take a look at it and I’ll show the guys.’ It’s great, it really is. It really benefits teaching right on the bench, even if you miss something. It’s great.”

Though it’s not just the coaching staff using them – more and more players have started taking the iPads into their own hands. That’s just the generation they’re from – they grew up using technology and they’re incredibly comfortable with it, so it’s been a perfect match in that regard.

“What was surprising was not necessarily the coaches grabbing them in a TV timeout, but it’s the frequency you see them being grabbed when players come to the bench between whistles,” Berglund remarked. “Someone has one in their hand and the great thing is to see it in player’s hands. I’m not quite sure that was perceived. It was thought that players would be shown things by coaches but not for coaches to hand the reigns over to players.

“Our programmers and engineers, they may not watch a lot of games, but to see Sidney Crosby sitting by himself on the bench using it, you couldn’t ask for a better thing to see.”

Right now, the Penguins have three iPads on the bench, but Saucier joked that they’re in such high demand they may need to re-evaluate that.

“I think when we first got them, it seemed like, why do we need three?” Saucier said. “But now Rex can’t get his hands on one when he wants to see something and we have three players watching something, so we might need some more.”

Recchi said that he needs two all the time for just the forwards, but it’s not always easy to procure them.

“I go to look at something and I’m like, ‘where the heck are my iPads?’ And they’re all looking at them,” he laughed. “They all got it down pretty good now, too. They’re looking right at the end of their shifts. It’s a good tool for them because they can see. It might be even getting a shot on goal, what did they see on a replay, or something like that. So it’s a huge benefit for everybody.”

Especially for this Penguins team, a mix of elite superstars and young talent who are all constantly trying to get better and better each and every day.

“They watch a lot of video, really just on their own, it’s not mandated at all,” Saucier said. “But they all watch, they watch their shifts, they want to get better and having it immediately on the bench is huge. I think it’s helped a lot for especially our guys, the types of personalities and types of learners we have.”

That starts with Crosby, who’s known for his incredible work ethic. As Sullivan has said, Crosby isn’t as good as he is by accident.

“As long as I’ve been associated with this league I don’t know that I’ve been around a player that has the same work ethic as Sid does as far as that insatiable appetite to try to just get better and be the best,” Sullivan continued. “And I think that’s why he’s as good as he is.”

Crosby thinks the game on another level, so he usually knows exactly when everything happened on the ice, and it doesn’t take him long for him to find what he’s looking for. At that point, he can look at the play and make his own adjustments, or have a visual tool to help explain to his teammates how to handle a certain situation.

“I think before, you’d have to wait till the end of the period,” Crosby said. “You’d go over the power play, you might not adjust or you might not see something because you don’t get a chance to really sit down and look at it for a period or so. So it’s nice to not necessarily waste time, but that you can look at it quickly and maybe adjust a little bit more on the fly than you typically would.”

But Crosby pointed out that it’s important not to get overly reliant on the iPads.

“I think sometimes it can be too much, too,” he said. “You don’t want to get caught. The game’s not static where you can just lay everything out the way you want to. But it’s nice to be able to look at that stuff sometimes. I think just knowing that the game is pretty free-flowing, a lot of things happen out there, but it’s a nice tool to have when you need it.”

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In Game 2 of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Round One matchup with Providence in the 2016 Calder Cup playoffs, Daniel Sprong received the puck on the halfwall during a power play and tried to backhand a pass to Tim Erixon.

Unfortunately, the pass didn’t make it to the intended recipient. Instead, it was picked off by Bruins forward Noel Acciari, who skated down on a breakaway and scored a shorthanded goal.

“Most coaches probably would have benched him at that time,” said former Penguins associate GM Jason Botterill, who was also GM of WBS at the time.

But not WBS head coach Clark Donatelli. Instead, Donatelli used it as a teaching moment, communicating to Sprong what he should have done differently in that situation.

“Then, to Clarkie’s credit, in the second period he actually popped him up to the first line and sure enough, who scores a goal?” Botterill recalled. “Then, he gives him more ice time in the third period, and who scores the overtime winner? It’s Daniel Sprong.”

That’s just one example of the many teaching moments that have taken place with Sprong over the last two years. He’s been a thrilling prospect since the Penguins made him their top draft pick in 2015, taking him in the second round (46th overall), and that excitement only intensified when he made the team’s NHL roster out of training camp.

Sprong would appear in 18 games for Pittsburgh before returning to junior hockey. But the excitement continued to rise as he posted eye-popping numbers in the QMJHL and AHL since that time, ramped up when Sprong was recalled back to Pittsburgh on Dec. 30, and reached a fever pitch in his fourth game with the team on Jan. 5.

That night, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan started Sprong on a line with Sidney Crosby, and the rookie winger scored twice and added an assist in Pittsburgh’s 4-0 win over the New York Islanders.

Sprong may have made everything look easy in that game, but the process he went through to do so is anything but. His offensive ability – most notably his shot – is his strength, which has been obvious.

But what had also been obvious is that Sprong needed to work on the defensive side of his game and become a more complete player if he wanted to earn a permanent spot in Pittsburgh.

Sprong also needed to work on becoming more mature – which, let’s be honest, what 18-year-old doesn’t? And following his first stint in Pittsburgh, that became apparent to Sprong as well.

“Just seeing what it was like until Christmas, just how guys were acting on and off the ice and going back to juniors and seeing guys my age who were younger acting differently than the pro guys did, I really saw a big difference in that,” Sprong said.

“Just the way they behaved, how they prepared and stuff was a big change. I saw then I had to mature, just the way I have to be as a pro. I think I’ve done a lot of that on the ice and especially off the ice.”

The process began with that first re-assignment to Charlottetown in 2015, where Sprong tried to take what he learned in Pittsburgh to the Islanders. He then joined WBS for that Calder Cup run, where Sprong finished with five goals in 10 games before returning to Pittsburgh to be part of the Black Aces during the Penguins’ 2016 championship run.

It was during a practice with the Black Aces that Sprong hurt his right shoulder, an injury that required surgery and came with a recovery timetable of 7-8 months. The rehab process was lengthy and grueling, but Sprong did what he could to continue his development throughout.

Most notably, he watched a lot of the Penguins’ postseason games from home while making mental notes – seeing what players were doing in the defensive zone and how he could implement that into his game.

Sprong took that mindset with him back to Charlottetown, where he returned to game action last January. After about three to five games, Sprong said he started feeling like himself again, and that’s when his game took off.

Despite missing most of the season, Sprong finished the year as one of the highest-scoring players in the QMJHL with 32 goals and 59 points in just 31 games. Those numbers included four hat tricks, one four-goal game and 10 multi-goal games

During that time, Mark Recchi, then the Penguins player development coach, made frequent visits up to Prince Edward Island – something he had done ever since Sprong initially returned to Charlottetown back in 2015 – while Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin also stopped in.

“(Recchi) has been really good to me,” Sprong said. “We went for dinners, he talked to me there. He’s a great player, so anything he says, you take it and try to put it into your game. Even Bill Guerin came down, so that’s pretty cool. Watched me play and then talked about the game, what he liked, what he didn’t like. That’s great advice.”

During his time in Prince Edward Island and in his talks with the Islanders coaching staff, what impressed Guerin the most about Sprong’s final season in junior was that the maturity that needed work had manifested itself.

“He’s not cheating to get offensive success, his offensive success is coming because he’s talented and he’s trying to play the best two-way hockey he can,” Guerin said of Sprong, who finished with a plus-29 after having a combined minus-50 in his first three seasons.

“Anything that his coaches and/or I talk about, he’s trying to implement. To me, that’s a good sign of maturity and that’s always the biggest hurdle. He’s got God-given ability and that’s not going to go anywhere. It’s just working on the rounded game and he’s doing that.”

Guerin also suggested that everything Sprong had been through up to that point had also helped with his maturity.

“Spending time with Pittsburgh, spending time with Wilkes-Barre, I think the injury has put things in perspective for him a little bit,” he said. “Going back to junior and having to handle that. All these things, at certain times they can make you feel good but they can also humble you and that’s what’s important. He seems like he’s gotten great experience that’s humbled him quite a bit in a good way.”

Sprong knew it would be his last chance to really develop and work on his game before making the jump to the pros for good, and he wanted to make the most of it. Once the season ended, Sprong turned his attention to having a strong summer heading into training camp, with the goal of playing in Pittsburgh at some point.

It started with being a member of the Black Aces for a second straight championship run before prospect development camp in July and the Prospects Challenge in September. And it was there that at times, Sprong appeared to be overthinking his game, sacrificing offense for the sake of defense.

After being held off the scoresheet in the first game, a 3-2 overtime loss to Boston, Donatelli felt that Sprong had given up a lot of opportunities to shoot. The message to Sprong was that they wanted to see more from him offensively, and that started with being more assertive. No more passing up chances to shoot. Play his game and do what makes him successful.

Sprong did that in Pittsburgh’s 6-2 win over New Jersey, scoring on the power play with a one-timer from the halfwall. He built on that in the final game of the tournament, a 5-3 win over Buffalo, finishing with 20 shot attempts against the Sabres, with fifteen of those hitting the net.

“I’m glad to see he’s shooting, because that’s what he does,” Donatelli said. “He’s a dynamic player and he’s a game-changer, and he’s definitely got a great shot. We want him shooting the puck.”

When Sprong reported to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign, Donatelli and assistant coach Tim Army continued to work tirelessly with him on finding that balance between playing his game offensively while being responsible defensively. That’s helped him tremendously in making all the details of a 200-foot game more of a muscle memory for him.

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Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens’ 4-3 win against Columbus at Nationwide Arena.

* Pens fans are well aware of Daniel Sprong and his capabilities. But something that’s really stood out to me watching him in the current preseason is his willingness to put the puck on net, at any time and any given situation. If there’s a broken play, puck on net. If he’s at a bad angle, puck on net. If he has no other play and no space, puck on net.

During a contest against Buffalo in the Prospects Challenge Sprong attempted 20 shots in the game, 15 of which ended up on net. Sprong has one of the nastiest releases on the entire Pens’ roster. Any time he shoots the puck, good things will happen. Including his goal against Columbus.

* Another guy that was putting the puck on the net was forward Zach Aston-Reese. He picked up two points in the game with a goal and assist. Both of his points came on what appeared to be non-consequential plays. On the first, Aston-Reese sent a lazy backhander on net that Sergei Bobrovsky misplayed and Sprong poked in. For his tally, Aston-Reese took a bad angle shot from along the halfwall that sailed far post on Matiss Kivlenieks.

* Sam Miletic is trying to follow in the footsteps of Alex D’Orio and Jordan Bellerive. Both of those players went undrafted, attended the Pens’ Development Camp and Prospects Challenge and earned themselves contracts with the team. Miletic also was undrafted, and attended the Development Camp and Prospects Challenge.

Miletic, 20, is an intriguing prospect. He has a knack for scoring goals, something he did 37 times last year with London of the Ontario Hockey League. He flashed some of those quick hands against the Blue Jackets, finding a pass-off-pads rebound and snapping home the rebound.

Miletic is a late-bloomer that was groomed in the USHL before arriving in London. He’s a long-range prospect, but the payoff could be huge.

Head coach Mike Sullivan said, “He’s the kind of player that grows on you.” That he doesn’t wow you but “he’s always in the right places.”

* There was an interesting play in the third period with goaltender Antti Niemi. During a save Niemi lost his glove, which should draw an automatic whistle from the officials for a stoppage in play. However, the refs did not stop the game. Niemi, to his credit, continued to play. Instinctively, Niemi made a save with his exposed hand. Thankfully there was no damage done.

The referees told Niemi that this season officials will not stop play for goaltenders that lose a blocker or glove, though the rule will still be enforced with a lost helmet. That didn’t give Sullivan any consolation. He said, “I wish they had blown the whistle.”

* There were fewer penalties called in tonight’s game than in the previous two. And only three slashing and zero face-off violations. Either the league figures that it made its point and is backing off the calls, or the players are adapting. Either way, it’s a win for everybody, especially the pace of the game.