Penguins’ Daniel Sprong no stranger to battling for respect

Daniel Sprong scored the overtime winner as the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Montreal Canadiens in NHL exhibition play.

The fascination with Daniel Sprong never waned.

In fact, not a week went by last season where Charlottetown Islanders general manager Grant Sonier didn’t get a phone call from a NHL executive, or have one pop by his office.

“Just all 30 of them,” Sonier said when asked how many NHL teams made inquiries about his star player. “Everybody was interested in Daniel Sprong.”

Yet, at the entry draft in June, that didn’t seem to be the case. The 20th-ranked North American skater — a presumed first-round pick — fell all the way to 46th before the Pittsburgh Penguins called his name.

Twenty-five different teams passed him by. The Boston Bruins made five selections without taking him; Ottawa, Columbus, Colorado and Arizona each made three.

There are prospects that slide at every NHL draft, but virtually none follow it up the way Sprong is about to: By making his NHL debut a couple months later. The 18-year-old winger has been a surprise even to the Penguins, who will dress him for Thursday's season-opener in Dallas.

"Certainly, after draft day, it's not a name that we thought we were going to see to start the season," Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford told Sportsnet.

So what exactly happened here? How does a guy go from first-round talent to second-round selection to making his NHL debut inside four months?

No one seems to have a definitive answer.

One NHL team had concerns about his size. (The Penguins list him at six-feet, 180 pounds). Another, according to a senior member of their front office, said Sprong gave "funky" answers during pre-draft interviews. A third team was worried that he's so driven to succeed personally that he wouldn't gain acceptance from teammates.

They all might be guilty of over-thinking things.

Sprong doesn't fit neatly into any of the sport's rigid boxes. After being born in the Netherlands and moving to Montreal at age seven to pursue hockey, he dealt with jealousy and harassment from the parents of other players. His father Hannie, himself a former Dutch pro, is said to have had run-ins with minor hockey coaches and pushed his son hard.

However, in the eyes of Sonier, none of that should have outweighed what Sprong was doing on the ice. He led his QMJHL team in scoring as a 16-year-old and then improved on that point total in his draft year.

"There was never any doubt that Daniel, just on skill alone, was a first-round draft pick — no doubt in my mind," said Sonier. "I think people read too much into (his past). He's got a unique upbringing: He's from Amsterdam, he came to Montreal, there's been issues, everybody talks about the father and all the hoopla around that.

"At the end of the day he's a 17-year-old kid who has world-class talent."

The biggest thing that stands out to scouts is his shot. It's so good that he's drawn comparisons to new Penguins teammate Phil Kessel.

Darryl Belfry, the skills coach who has worked with Sprong, says the teenager possesses the rare ability to "think and play" with great NHL players. He even believes that Sprong is better-suited for the top league in the world rather than those below it.

While some have knocked the winger's defensive play, Rutherford claims he's seen seen no evidence of trouble in that area of his game.

"He's strong on his skates, he sees the ice well, he's got a very good shot," said Rutherford. "He certainly doesn't play at the level his age is. ... We kept watching [in pre-season] to see if something was going to change.

"Right from his first game he was creating scoring chances for himself and for his linemates, and really playing like a guy that's been around."

No wonder he earned the chance to follow Patrice Bergeron (2003) and Ryan O'Reilly (2009) as the rare examples of players who have jumped straight from the second round into the NHL.

Sonier remembers riding the "roller-coaster" with Sprong during the draft in Florida, seeing the teenager crushed after going unselected in the first round on Friday night and elated the following morning when he ended up with the Penguins.

Sonier's own resume includes several stops with NHL teams — including a stint as director of amateur scouting for the L.A. Kings and time as assistant GM of the Florida Panthers — and he knows first-hand that different organizations value different attributes when they get to the draft table. That's why he always tells prospects it doesn't really matter where you're selected.

He believes a player with Sprong's ability was bound to make his own way whether he carried the label of "first-rounder" or not.

"If you just want to break it down to black and white, your odds are with a kid with that kind of skill that he's going to make it," said Sonier. "Unless you feel he's a bad kid. The one thing I've told all the NHL teams going into the draft: 'Daniel's not a bad kid.'

"Daniel's got some issues around him growing up, but we separated that when he got to us in Charlottetown. He's just a hockey player for us and the kid's done everything and more that we could ever ask."

The Penguins have quickly learned the same thing. Sprong far exceeded their expectations at training camp and, in the words of Rutherford, "bumped somebody else out of a spot."

There's no telling how long he'll manage to hold on to it — right now Pittsburgh is only committed to giving him one game — but should he eventually find himself on the way back to the QMJHL this season the Islanders will welcome him with open arms.

"Obviously we're going to keep his jersey available," said Sonier. "Nobody's going to wear No. 11. We're proud of him. ... I hope Daniel realizes what people are telling him is true: He hasn't made the National Hockey League just yet.

"He's got a lot of things going for him, but the job now is just fighting to continue."

It's worth remembering, however, that this is a kid who is no stranger to battling for respect.