When the NHL handed out a seven-game suspension to Tom Wilson, it was another blow to a team whose 2021 campaign had been pocked with personnel absences for a variety of reasons. But for Daniel Sprong, it represented a wider window of opportunity with his new club than he’d yet seen. He’s made the most of it.
The Caps are 6-0-0 in the six games they’ve played sans-Tom, and Sprong has points (three goals, one assist) in four of them. This stretch has given Sprong the highest 5v5 goal-scoring rate in the League among players who have skated any sort of meaningful minutes, and the second-highest 5v5 points rate on the team with the same qualifier.
Much of this is driven by Sprong’s outlandish 30% shooting percentage, which is second tops in the League behind Valtteri Filppula. While no one in their right mind would claim that that sort of shooting efficiency is sustainable, we can still acknowledge that over large samples Sprong has proven to be somewhat of a sharpshooter, boasting a career 12% shooting percentage. For reference, Alex Ovechkin’s career shooting percentage is 12.7% (but we’ll stop the comparison there). It’s worth noting that the skaters who have played Sprong’s minutes or greater and put up a comparable shooting percentage include familiar names like Mark Stone, Jonas Donskooi, Chris Kreider and, hey, whaddaya know, Nicklas Backstrom.
So why does Peter Laviolette perceive Sprong as the team’s 13th forward (or at least, why does Lavy’s usage of Sprong to this point indicate that that is the case)? The obvious answer is that it’s a crowded lineup, with well-defined roles that are generally working out. Sprong isn’t going to claim the sweater of any of the top 6 guys, and for the sake of argument let’s assume that Connor Sheary and Richard Panik have cemented their spots in the lineup as well.
That leaves the wings on the fourth line as potential entry points for Sprong, and since Sprong has been primarily utilized on the right wing, Garnet Hathaway becomes our candidate to slot out of the lineup.
A conventional understanding of how coaches like to structure their lines would lead us to the conclusion that Garnet Hathaway would get a sweater over Daniel Sprong at full team health on account of his possessing greater defensive responsibility, and that being the preferred archetype for a fourth-liner. A quick glance at some defensive metrics bears this out somewhat: Sprong has the team’s second-worst expected goals-against rate, and the actuals to match. Regardless of the granularity you want to use - shots-against rate, high danger chances against rate, etc, the story is much the same: Hathaway’s numbers are better than Sprong’s. But how meaningful is this gap, really? Using HDCA/60 as our metric for examination, Sprong is currently on the ice for 9.64 high-danger attempts per 60 minutes of ice time, with Hathaway coming in at 8.94. That’s a difference of .7 attempts per 60 minutes of ice time, and with each skater getting around 10 minutes of 5v5 TOI per game, we’re talking about theoretical difference of 1 more high-danger shot attempt against every six-and-a-half games or so.
The other consideration is the fact that Hathaway kills penalties and Sprong does not. Let’s unpack that a little bit. Yes, Hathaway kills penalties, but he hardly appears to be integral, with Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd, Lars Eller, and Tom Wilson all being forwards receiving more penalty kill time per game. Perhaps that’s because the reason these guys are killing penalties is because Hathaway is in the box - Hathaway’s eight minor penalties are second most on the team. Meanwhile, Sprong has only taken one penalty on the season.
In conclusion, it seems like if the team wants to get Sprong in the lineup on a more permanent basis, the fourth-line right wing spot is the most sensible spot for that. In doing so, you ostensibly relinquish some defensive prowess and need to ask someone else (maybe Sprong, even) to pick up some light penalty killing duties, but in return you get a strong offensive threat whose shooting efficiency is very much in the spirit of how this team has consistently found success over the years. In any event, a coach should be finding reasons to put a player like this into the lineup, not reasons to keep him out.