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.