Daniel Sprong was demoted this week to mixed reviews. Many fans supported Coach Mike Sullivan with any roster decision he makes. He has won back to back Stanley Cups and has pushed pretty much every right button with this team since taking over. His ability to read the tea leaves and find the pulse of this roster is why he’s been as successful as he has. Benefit of the doubt gained no questions asked.
However, the recent demotion of Daniel Sprong and to a less extent the continuing scratching of Ian Cole have some scratching their heads to what is the end game with this roster makeup? What is plan here? The Penguins have struggled for much of the season to consistently generate offensive 5 on 5, and secondary scoring is relatively nonexistent due to Jake Guentzel and Connor Sheary regressing this season. Sprong is nailed on goal scorer that can’t find a role on a team that needs more offense.
This demotion is perplexing to say the least. Take Carl Hagelin as example. He is integrated piece of the defensive game plan but his offense is nonexistent. He has 1 more goal than Sprong and has played in 40, yes 40, more games. If the Penguins can keep player that skewed towards defensive value what not keep a forward on the roster that is valued in a similar way but because of his offensive skills?
The Penguins started a little 4 game win streak early in the month and it looked like they were gaining momentum behind a reshuffling of lines that found Sprong flanking Crosby. It looked to be the start of something good. After his breakout game against the Islanders on January 5th he plateaued and was scoreless in his last 4 before his scratching. In that 4 game span he was averaging 15 TOI, was a -1, and zero penalty minutes. That’s not a ground-breaking defensive stat line but is hardly a benchable offense.
Coach Sullivan cited effort as the main reason to his displeasure with Sprong’s play. Most likely he wasn’t happy with perceived cheating to offensive zone hoping to spur offense in turn becoming defensive liability. Defense has never been a strength of Sprong’s game and he does play a more undisciplined style than most, but he has not been the disaster many are making it out to be. Criticizing Sprong’s defensive deficiencies on a team where your top defenseman has a -16 and your franchise player has a -12 is laughable.
I know plus/minus is a terrible way to gauge a player’s actual defensive game, but in a season where Penguins forwards have been underwhelming defensively it is ridiculous to hold rookie to such a high standard. If he was truly flunking the eye test so terribly I would expect some gaudy stats showing his deficiencies. From my observation Sullivan’s displeasure with his effort in that Sharks game he was the least of his worries. The Pens in their entirety looked awful; scapegoating the rookie is incredulous.
Sullivan has been on thin ice all season with his line juggling. I think he likely figured that something would have gelled by now; worked itself out. It is obvious wants Guentzel back on the wing and Bryan Rust in the lineup now that he is heathy. Demoting Sprong instead of say Jean-Sebastian is his prerogative. Sullivan just needs to realize he is now is teetering very closely to breaking the only true sniper prospect in the organization. Obviously, I can’t speak for Daniel Sprong, but I’m quite sure he is confused by the events that have unfolded.
I hope Sprong is recalled and soon; getting the youngsters involved is what will be needed to make this playoff push. Coach Sullivan has finally hit his watershed moment of the 2017-18 campaign. His handling of roster going forward will determine if the Pens are buyers at the trade deadline and in turn which players are likely to be dealt.
Truth be told the Penguins made the safe move sending Sprong back to Wilkes Barre. He’s only 20 and still has room to develop game so collecting dust in the press box is not doing him any good. You want him to play everyday and if Mike Sullivan doesn’t think he can help this team win you need to trust the Penguins brass. It is very difficult to question a coach and front office responsible for back to back Stanley Cups. I think the handling, or mis-handling, of Sprong will be something that is looked back upon well after the season is over as a defining moment. Whether it is good or bad is yet to be seen.