Capitals fans had to say goodbye to another piece of the Cup-winning squad right before the trade deadline on Monday, as Christian Djoos was moved to the Anaheim Ducks. In return, the Capitals received trigger man Daniel Sprong, a second-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015.
On the surface this may seem like a small trade, but it could end up being much more. The Caps traded from a strength (namely left-handed defensemen) for a need (high-end offensive prospects), and brought in a younger player by almost three years. In short it was a Brian MacLellan special, a small move with a potentially big pay off — and very few things need to go right in order for the Caps to get that big pay off.
But first, who is Daniel Sprong?
Sprong is a speedy skater with an elite shot and a very good offensive brain. He isn’t exactly at Jakub Vrana’s level, but he isn’t far off in skill level either. What separates them may be work ethic, as Sprong’s attitude and defensive effort are his weak spots. But there’s absolutely no doubt that the talent is there. And with him not turning 23 until next month, Sprong is still ready to take the next step as a legit NHL producer.
Let’s go on Sprong history review.
In Sprong’s last year in the QMJHL he was 20th in goals scored with 32 (10th among all U20 players), which isn’t that impressive until you consider that he played in only 31 games of a 68-game season. That’s a 70-goal pace over a full season, 18 more than the next player on the list — and while it’s unlikely he actually would have hit that mark, a 50+ goal season would hardly be out of the question.
The season after that, he was 20 years old, playing in his first AHL season. He finished with 32 goals — second-most in the AHL and first among rookies — and 65 points in 65 games, good for fifth in the league and second in rookie scoring behind only Mason Appleton (who finished one point ahead of Sprong but also played 11 more games). He also made his NHL debut with the Penguins, appearing in eight games for Pittsburgh and putting up two goals and three points.
In the 2018-19 season, though, Sprong had a tough start with the Penguins, posting just four points in 16 games. And this is where, supposedly, his attitude got in the way. He wanted more ice time than the fourth-line minutes he was skating, and didn’t want to go to the AHL, so he was eventually traded to Anaheim.
Things improved for Sprong in Anaheim last season, as he got to play more minutes with better players — and he responded, posting 14 goals and 19 points in 47 games (check out his goals in the above video). That’s decent, but not mind-blowing, production; it’s more impressive given his still-limited ice time, at roughly his 13 minutes a night and just 11:31 at five on five.
So he did get to play higher up in the lineup but not all the time. He was still technically getting bottom-six minutes, with a little bit of power play time mixed in.
The center he spent the most time with at five on five was Ryan Getzlaf, about 157 minutes, (although that only made up about 25% of his total time at even strength). When Sprong was with Getzlaf he was very good, and the reverse was true as well:
This is how Sprong ranked against his team in some five-on-five stats per 60 minutes that season and where that would rank with the Capitals this season (stats provided by Natural Stat Trick:
- 1st in goals - 1.22 (3rd on Caps)
- 1st in shots - 9.64 (3rd on Caps)
- 1st in ixGF - 0.75 (6th on Caps)
- 1st in iCF - 17.4 (3rd on Caps)
- 3rd in iSCF - 7.31 (7th on Caps)
- 3rd in Rush Attempts - 0.55 (5th on Caps)
Taken altogether, those stats really show what he can do with his speed and shot. The individual expected goals and scoring chances aren’t out of this world, but considering the kind of team he was on it makes sense. If he gets a shot with the boys in red he should be able to really shine.
The heat maps provided by HockeyViz above show how the impact Sprong had with the Penguins and Ducks last season, especially in the offensive zone. It’s easy to tell he really loves that right side, which could be a perfect fit for the Capitals because their two best shooters, Ovechkin and Vrana, are left wingers and are strong on that left side. Would be good to have someone sniping from the other side.
Continuing on with our journey, this season Sprong only got to play eight games in the NHL, posting one goal and one assist. It’s unclear why he played so little with the Ducks when he showed real promise last season as a 21 year old. But alas, in the AHL this season he has 27 points in 36 games, not mind melting but he’s on a mediocre San Diego Gulls team. And even then his 27 points is third on the team in points. If he played the full season there he would definitely be leading the team in points.
And that brings the Sprong story to where we are now. He will be joining one of the best teams in the AHL with the Hershey Bears where he will, hopefully, get top minutes. In his first practice with the Bears he was slotted at the second line right wing and was getting first unit powerplay time. So it’s good to see that the Bears and Caps know how to utilize him.
But, again, the Capitals brass should not look at Sprong as just a AHL pickup. Without a doubt, Sprong is a top nine NHL player right now. Not later, but now. It does not mean he will be a 30 goal 30 assist player like he probably was projected to be, but at the very least he could be that Brett Connolly player that scores 20 goals a seasons while playing on the third. And we all know how important that type of player can be. But his skill level is probably higher than what Connolly brought. He has a better shot and more speed.
His deficiencies should not be glazed over. Doesn’t matter how skilled a player is, if they have a “me” attitude and don’t want to work on their game they simply won’t last in the NHL. A good idea would be to connect Vrana and Sprong this summer. They have very similar offensive gifts, but Vrana’s work ethic is what makes him elite. If Sprong can learn from his counter part he could really turn into a player.
Sprong is young, cheap, fast, and has a release that many don’t have at the NHL level. Maybe not this season, but next season Sprong should get a real look with the Capitals in a top nine role. He has to clean up his attitude and defensive play but he has a bright future, the Capitals just have to realize what they have.