It’s safe to say that around here we’re pretty big Daniel Sprong fans. And in his limited time with the Caps, plenty of fans have jumped on board the “don’t sit Daniel Sprong” bandwagon, with more doing so over the past week and as the Caps head toward the playoffs.
Let’s dig into why that is the exact right position to take.
On trade deadline day, right before the Jakub Vrana/Anthony Mantha blockbuster trade, the Capitals acquired veteran forward Michael Raffl from the Philadelphia Flyers. Raffl is a fine player, though unspectacular, who can play every forward position and is fairly consistent; this makes him very attractive to head coach Peter Laviolette.
So it was no surprise that as soon as Raffl was healthy enough to play he got a spot in the lineup - but with all other players healthy at the time, Raffl going in meant someone had to come out. This time, as has often been the case this season, Sprong drew the short straw and sat Thursday night’s game. Raffl’s debut was, again, decent but unspectacular in the Caps’ 1-0 shootout win over the Islanders.
Fast-forward to the next game, which Alex Ovechkin missed due to a rare injury suffered late in that shootout win. Sprong stepped in and took the captain’s spot on the first line - and all he did was score two goals. Think about that: Sprong went from healthy scratch to a two-goal game... and yet it’s a decent assumption that he could go straight back to being a healthy scratch when Ovechkin returns.
And that is exactly what can’t happen.
The Capitals are a very good defensive team (top-eight in all defensive metrics since February 7) whose “bottom” two lines are chock full of defensively reliable players who can still contribute offensively. The type of game they can get from Raffl can be achieved with the players already in those roles - and with higher scoring upside. That production from their bottom six is what helped them win the Cup, and has been a key part of really any Cup-winning team in recent memory.
But think about the Caps’ chances of winning the Cup back in 2018 without their offensively potent third line consisting of Andre Burkovsky, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly. That last name in particular stands out as a good comparable because Sprong has all the ability to be the new Connolly: a high-end shooter on a cheap contract that gets major bang for your buck (and Sprong likely has a higher ceiling than Connolly).
Let’s look at Connolly’s Cup-winning season (via Natural Stat Trick, rankings based on forwards with at least 650 five-on-five minutes):
2017-18 Regular Season
- 0.83 goals per 60 - 89th
- 2.65 points per 60 - 128th
2018 Playoffs (among forwards with at least 100 five-on-five minutes):
- 1.21 goals/60 - 14th
- 1.93 points/60 - 30th
Now let’s look at what Sprong has done this season.
2020-21 Regular Season (among forwards with at least 350 five-on-five minutes):
- 1.47 goals/60 - 8th
- 2.61 points/60 - 20th
What Connolly did for the Caps a few years ago was good; what Sprong is doing is even more impressive, outperforming Connolly’s numbers from both the regular season and the playoffs. Okay, but it wasn’t that Cup-winning year when Connolly really broke out - that came the following season.
Here’s his 2018-19 regular season (rankings among all forwards with at least 800 five-on-five minutes):
- 1.27 goals/60 - 13th
- 2.66 points/60 - 16th
Not bad. And yet even compared to Connolly’s best time with the Caps, Sprong is basically keeping pace.
Now let’s look at Evolving Hockey’s RAPM Charts:
Okay, so Sprong isn’t a play-driver by any means (though it’s worth noting that over 51 minutes of his ice time have come with Michael Sgarbossa, Brian Pinho, or Philippe Maillet as his center) - but even in that department, he’s done much better than Connolly.
That thick blue line isn’t an accident, either. Sprong has the offensive skill to help create a lot of offense, so it’s no surprise a lot of goals are scored when he’s on the ice. Just look at the second goal he scored on Saturday’s game:
His shot is probably top-three on the team, and is something the Capitals (or any team) could use in the playoffs for some clutch goals.
If the Caps can put together a third line that is as good as or even better than the Burakovsky-Eller-Connolly line this postseason - and with Sheary-Eller-Sprong, it seems as if they can - than they absolutely must do it. That starts with keeping Sprong, the type of player who doesn’t exist in the bottom-six, in the lineup over a player like Raffl, the type of player the Caps have a handful of already.
In short, always bet on your game breakers - and with his offensive abilities, that’s exactly what Sprong is.