Those four have jumped immediately into the NHL this season, so far competing with varying levels of success. The other top-10 picks — Dylan Strome (3rd overall, Arizona), Mitch Marner (4th, Toronto), Pavel Zacha (6th, New Jersey), Ivan Provorov (7th, Philadelphia), Zach Werenski (8th, Columbus) and Timo Meier (9th, San Jose) — will have to wait until next fall to take a crack at making the big leagues.
Then there’s Daniel Sprong.
In all, 45 picks were announced before the Dutch-born Sprong was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and 29 other NHL clubs might be wondering now if they made a mistake by not picking him well before 45th.
After all, he’s the fifth player from last June’s draft to be in the NHL this season — remarkable for a player selected in the second round.
We’ll see how this story progresses, of course. Teams shied away from the Charlottetown Islanders winger for a variety of reasons, most of them to do with a perception that Sprong isn’t a consummate team player and is primarily — or only — interested in scoring goals.
“A lot of teams passed on [Henrik] Zetterberg, too,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford recently, while stressing he was not making a direct comparison between the two players.
The 18-year-old Sprong made a strong opening statement by making the Penguins out of training camp, and Thursday night he made another statement, becoming the 20th NHL freshman to score this season.
His second-period goal for the point-starved Penguins helped Pittsburgh notch its first win of the season, a 2-0 triumph over the Ottawa Senators, who were shut out after putting seven pucks into the net of the Columbus Blue Jackets the night before.
Sprong’s offensive outburst wasn’t a spectacular as Anthony Duclair’s hat trick the night before with the Arizona Coyotes, and New York Rangers newcomer Oscar Lindberg still leads all first-year NHLers with four goals.
But Sprong, playing higher in the Pittsburgh lineup due to the absence of Beau Bennett, had four shots in all and was fairly dangerous all night.
His first NHL goal came in the second period when he took a pass in the slot and fired a quick shot over a sliding Craig Anderson in the Ottawa net. The release was sublime — that’s an element of Sprong’s game that scouts would all agree on — and the skill could make him a lot of money in the NHL.
With Phil Kessel held without a goal for the third time in four games and unable to establish a great deal of chemistry with Sidney Crosby as of yet, Sprong’s contributions in 13:07 of playing time were certainly helpful. The Pens managed 36 shots, including four from Kessel, but only scored twice, and now have just five goals in four games this season.
Rutherford, of course, will have a decision to make on Sprong in another couple of weeks once he hits the nine-game mark. Right now, with the Penguins in must-win mode this season after picking up Kessel in an expensive trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he might end up sticking around because Pittsburgh may not have a better candidate to give the team some secondary scoring.
Sprong’s got NHL skills, but is this the right time to make him a full-time NHL player? Not an easy choice for Rutherford, particularly with more and more teams believing that bringing young players along more slowly (ideally with some time in the minors) is more important these days for both development reasons and to control costs.
It was a desperately-needed triumph for the Penguins. Crosby has yet to score, while Evgeni Malkin picked up his first goal of the season against the Senators, a wrist shot under the arm of Anderson off a two-on-one break.
It seems likely that before Rutherford decides where Sprong will play this season, the youngster will get a chance, or at least a few shifts, beside either Crosby or Malkin.
Don’t expect him to be overwhelmed if he gets that opportunity. Sprong’s been dreaming of this chance since he and his family moved to Montreal at age 7 to help him reach higher in the sport he loved.
The kid has offensive skills. Whether those talents would be better honed in Charlottetown or Pittsburgh is the question that will be answered in the next few weeks.