Born and raised in the Netherlands, Sprong was a hockey outsider to begin with. But a mid-second round pick making the NHL out of his first NHL training camp? That raises some interesting questions. Here’s how the Penguins nabbed the outsized talent.
Of all the 18-year-olds to clinch an NHL roster spot this fall, Pittsburgh’s Daniel Sprong is the most unlikely – on paper, at least. Forget the fact the right winger was born and raised in Amsterdam: he was also drafted in the middle of the second round by the Penguins, not hearing his name called until the 46th pick in the 2015 draft.
So how did this all happen?
Let’s start with the positive side of the ledger: Sprong earned his spot on the Pens’ roster thanks to his devastating offensive prowess. He’s fast, skilled and has a great shot. Last year, Sprong (who moved to Montreal when he was 10 to further his hockey career) played for the Quebec League’s Charlottetown Islanders and scouts were well aware of his potential.
One talent hawk (who does not work for the Penguins, by the way), even told me that in terms of raw skill, Sprong was “right up there with McDavid and Eichel.”
Another scout, from a different franchise (again, not Pittsburgh), offered the following assessment: “Tremendous puck skills. The kid can play; not many can match his skill set.”
Which sets up the obvious question: How did this kid fall to the Penguins mid-way through the second round? Pittsburgh didn’t have a first-rounder, which is a partial explanation. But what about other teams? Boston selected five players before Sprong’s name was called, while even a savvy franchise such as Tampa Bay passed over the Dutch kid twice.
Well, simply put, there were question marks. Even in keeping Sprong, Penguins coach Mike Johnston noted that the teenager must not forget about his defensive play. That’s probably the most obvious knock on 90 percent of NHL prospects, though. Specific to Sprong, scouts had other concerns before the draft. One of my sources had issues with Sprong’s engagement and involvement, while another had a different take:
“Great kid,” he said. “But it seems like there’s a lot of pressure on him.”
Given that Sprong’s entire family moved from the Netherlands to Canada so that he could get a shot at the NHL, that makes sense. From my viewings of the right winger last season, I could see him get frustrated on the ice sometimes and that can be interpreted a number of different ways. The key for Sprong this fall is that Pittsburgh turned out to be a great atmosphere that alleviated those frustrations, at least in the short-term.
Practising with Sidney Crosby certainly helps, while skills coach Darryl Belfry – who has worked with both Sprong and Sid, had an interesting take on Twitter: Belfry believes that the teen has the rare ability to think and play with great NHLers, meaning that Sprong might actually have an easier time in the pros.
This is just the beginning of the journey, of course. The regular season is a different beast than the exhibition schedule and Sprong could easily be sent back to Charlottetown if the action gets too hot before that vaunted nine-game mark (after which the first year of Sprong’s NHL contract is activated).
On the other hand, the teen could keep the good times rolling on a Pens forward corps laden with complementary skill players. In which case, he’ll be the first impact second-rounder to jump straight to the NHL since Ryan O’Reilly did the trick with Colorado in 2009-10. And that would be great news for Pittsburgh.