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Unlike postseasons past, talented Daniel Sprong a legitimate option for Penguins

May 5, 2018 GMT

Daniel Sprong’s instructions for his “promotion” to Pittsburgh last week weren’t overly detailed or overstated.

“All I got… was, ‘Practice at 12, so make sure you are on time,’ ” Sprong said after an optional practice Friday in Cranberry Township.

For the third consecutive postseason run, the Penguins filed the necessary transactional red tape to get Sprong — their most celebrated forward prospect — onto the playoff roster after the AHL Penguins’ season was completed.

This spring, though, something is a little different. Instead of being just another member of the so-called “black aces” practice squad, Sprong has his own stall in the locker rooms (at PPG Paints Arena, at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex practice facility and even on the road).

Sprong said Friday that when he reported the big club last week, he instinctively headed for an auxiliary locker room that houses the black aces. But he was stopped and told, no, this time he was with the big boys.

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“It’s fun,” the Penguins’ top pick of the 2015 draft said. “Two years in a row a black ace, wasn’t really part of it (the team), just watched from above and not being in the room.

“But this year being in the room, it’s fun and a lot of the guys, just seeing how they act, they are having fun with it and it makes it easier for me.”

Of the 13 players the Penguins recalled April 28 after Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was eliminated in the first round of the AHL playoffs, only Sprong and veteran center Josh Jooris were given locker stalls with the rest of the team. Sprong joined just Jooris, goalie Tristan Jarry and defenseman Lukas Bengtsson in reporting to Washington between Games 1 and 2.

“We have to have some extras in the event that there are injuries or whatever it may be,” coach Mike Sullivan said, “and so trying to keep the group as focused as we can, and not having all kinds of people around the team. But we need to make decisions on who those few extra might be at different positions that give us the flexibility, depending on what happens with our players and our lineup. And so that’s how we make the decisions.”

Reading between the lines, it’s clear to see that, unlike the past two seasons, the Penguins view Sprong as a legitimate option to play in an NHL playoff game. The Penguins made it through four rounds in winning the Stanley Cup in 2016 using only 14 forwards. Last season, it was 15. Through 10 games this season, 14 forwards have played.

With Zach Aston-Reese out long-term because of a broken jaw, the lone reserves at forward are Carter Rowney, Jooris and Sprong.

In other words, no matter how you slice it Sprong is close to getting his shot.

“I don’t try to think that way. I just come to the rink every day, work hard and if I get a chance to play, I will give it everything I have,” he said, “But for now just keep working hard and wait for my opportunity.”

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Sullivan said Thursday the decision on which forward to use would depend on what assets the team needs. Presumably, for example, Rowney for a defensive-minded fourth-line center, Jooris for an injection of speed … and Sprong, perhaps, for a scoring jolt.

Sprong tied for second in the AHL regular season with 32 goals in 65 games. He was a league all-star and on its all-rookie team a year after being one of the highest-scoring players in Canadian major junior hockey during 2016-17. Sprong also had two goals in an eight-game NHL stint in from New Year’s Eve through Jan. 18.

There’s no questioning Sprong’s ability to score goals, even at the NHL level. It’s the other parts of his game that give Sullivan and his staff pause.

Sprong insists that he embraced those challenges during a season in Wilkes-Barre in which he “grew a lot as a player.”

“I think I grew in everything — supporting the play on the defensive side or the offensive side. As the year went on, the coaches started trusting me a lot more, starting playing me those important minutes at the end of the (close games) when we were down or up, so it means a lot that those situations are happening and means I was doing my job on that side of the area.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.