Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Forwards: Daniel Sprong

Daniel Sprong

“He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home.”
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Some journeys are taken on smooth roads, others on gravel paths.  For Daniel Sprong, the path that brought him to Washington resembled the latter more than the former.  A second-round pick in the 2015 Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, one might expect a player taken in that vicinity to have a better than even chance at a respectable NHL career (23 of 31 second round picks of that draft have appeared in at least one NHL game, seven of them in more than 200 games).  Sprong got early exposure to the NHL, dressing for 18 games with the Pens in the season following his selection.  Things did not go smoothly from there, however.  In 2017-2018 he appeared in only eight games with Pittsburgh (2-1-3, plus-2), but he followed that up with a difficult start to the 2018-2019 season in which he went 0-4-4, minus-7, in 16 games with the Pens. 

He was traded to Anaheim in December 2018 for defenseman Marcus Pettersson, and it seemed he might have found a home, going 14-5-19 in 47 games with the Ducks.  The following season he appeared in just eight games for Anaheim (1-1-2, minus-2).  He was traded by the Ducks to the Caps in February 2020 for defenseman Christian Djoos, perhaps a reflection of a disturbing statistic that made its way into his resume.  Over the 2019-2019/2019-2020 seasons Sprong ranked 411th among 437 forwards appearing in at least 50 games in on-ice even strength goals-for percentage (38.6).  He was on ice for a significantly higher number of goals against (43) than goals for (27).  Is a brief stint with the Hershey Bears to close the 2019-2020 season, he displayed his offensive gifts, going 1-5-6 in five games with the Bears.  He got his chance with the Caps this season, appearing in 42 games and posting a 13-7-20, plus-7 scoring line, recording his best scoring rates of his career for goals (0.31 per game) and points (0.48 per game).

Fearless’ Take… It took Sprong a while to work his way into the lineup, appearing in only 12 of the Caps first 23 games of the season, going 3-1-4, minus-1.  But he dressed for 30 of the final 33 games of the regular season schedule, going 10-6-16, plus-8, a 25-15-40, plus-20 pace over 82 games.  What is more, the Caps were successful when his ice time was higher, not what one might expect for a player who has an iffy record on defense (9-3-0 when he skated at least 13 minutes).  In that same vein, Sprong had an on-ice even strength goal differential of plus-7 (third-best among forwards) and an on-ice even strength goals for percentage of 56.4, third-best among forwards appearing in more than ten games.  And, the Caps were 12-3-2 when he recorded at least one point.

Cheerless’ Take… For an offense-oriented player, his engagement on offense was not entirely successful.  In 12 games in which he recorded three or more shots on goal, the Caps were just 3-6-3, although he was 6-2-8 in those 12 games.  On the other hand, they were 6-1-1 in eight games in which he did not record a shot on goal.  He had only one assist in those eight games.

Odd Sprong Fact… Since the NHL began capturing blocked shots data in 2005-2006, Daniel Sprong is one of eight forwards to appear in at least 40 games and record one or no blocked shots in a season (he had one in 42 games).

Odd Sprong Fact II… Sprong was one of four players in the NHL this season to average less than 12 minutes per game (11:40) and post thee or more game-winning goals (three).

Odd Sprong Fact III… Since coming into the NHL in 2015-2016, Sprong is the only player in the league to have recorded more than 30 goals (32) and fewer than 20 assists (18).

Game to Remember… April 24, 2021 vs. New York Islanders.  As April was winding down and the Caps were headed to Long Island to wrap up the road portion of their season series against the New York Islanders, Daniel Sprong was in a slump.  In 17 games before facing the Islanders, Sprong was 1-5-6, posting that lone goal on 33 shots (3.0 shooting percentage).  He was quiet on the score sheet to open this game, too.  The Caps scored the first two goals before the game was 11 minutes old, but the Isles got even on a pair of special teams goals – one on a power play, the other shorthanded – to get even.  Nic Dowd put the Caps in front in the 13th minute of the second period, and then Sprong gave the Caps some breathing room.  Taking advantage of a weary defense on a long shift, followed by a poor line change, Evgeny Kuznetsov took a pass from Sprong at the Islanders blue line and skated in on goalie Ilya Sorokin.  Sprong followed Kuznetsov on his left and was in perfect position when Kuznetsov slid the puck across the low slot, and despite Josh Bailey getting his stick on the puck, Sprong swatted it off his stick and into the open side of the net at the 14:46 mark to make it a 4-2 game.  The Islanders got back to within a goal, but Kuznetsov put the Caps back up by a pair early in the third period.  Sprong put the icing on the cake with under five minutes left on a nifty play off a faceoff.  Kuznetsov got enough of the draw to the left of Sorokin to give Tom Wilson a chance to jump on the loose puck. He slid it back to Sprong at the top of the right wing circle for a one-timer that banged off the iron on the far side to Sorokin’s right and in to close the scoring in a 6-3 Caps win.  It was Sprong’s first multi-goal game as a Capital.  It was also the first game of what would be a three-game goal scoring streak and the start of a run that saw him score six goals in his last eight games of the regular season.

Game to Forget… May 1, 2021 vs. Pittsburgh.  Players always want to do well against a team for whom they once played and who gave up on them.  Such was the case when the Caps hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins to open the May schedule.  Sometimes, though, those games go sideways for the player, and it was the case for Sprong.  In 15 minutes and change of ice time, he recorded a season-high five hits against his old squad.  But he managed only two shots on goal, did not record a point, and skated only five shifts (3:33 in ice time) in the third period in a 3-0 loss to the Pens.

Postseason… Sprong got his first career taste of postseason action with the Caps in the opening round matchup against Boston.  He appeared in only three games of the five-game loss to the Bruins (Games 1, 2, and 5) and recorded one point (an assist) despite posting 11 shots on goal while averaging 10:23 I nice time per game.

Looking ahead… Sprong was extended by the Caps, signing a two-year/$1.45 million contract to cover the next two years.  In terms of his offensive potential, this could be one of the better value contracts.  But he will have to produce without slipping into old habits on defense.  He provide some needed spark and some clutch goal scoring for the Caps this past season, and if he could duplicate that result without the uncertainty of whether or not he will be in the lineup on a night-to-night basis, he could be an important element on next year’s team.

In the end…

In one sense, Sprong has been here before.  When he was traded by Pittsburgh to Anaheim in December 2018, his performance with the Ducks suggested he might have found a home.  This season, his first in Washington, he had a season that resembled that first season with the Ducks in terms of his offensive production.  Whether he can build on that and avoid the drop off he experienced in his second season in Anaheim will be a story line to watch, to see if he is home at last. 

Grade: B

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Forwards: Conor Sheary

Conor Sheary

“'Tis a lesson you should heed–Try again;
If at first you don’t succeed, Try again.
Then your courage should appear;
For if you will persevere,
You will conquer, never fear,
Try again.”

-- William Edward Hickson

Conor Sheary’s career has been one big “try again” adventure.  He scored 38 goals and 66 points in four seasons at University of Massachusetts-Amherst), but was undrafted.  He signed as a free agent with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL, and after going 20-25-45 in 58 games in his first full AHL season, he signed as a free agent with the parent Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL.  In three seasons with Pittsburgh he went 48-45-93, plus-25, in 184 games, but he was then traded to the Buffalo Sabres with Matt Hunwick for a 2019 fourth round draft pick in what looked like a salary dump move.  His production tailed off in Buffalo (23-30-53, minus-22, in 133 games) and he was traded back to the Penguins at the trading deadline in 2020.  His second stint in Pittsburgh lasted eight games, over which he went just 1-3-4, minus-1.  His contract having expired, he found his was as a free agent to Washington in December 2020 with a “show-me-what-you-got” $735,000 one-year deal that was a far cry from the #3.0 million a year deal that just expired.

Fearless’ Take… I guess you could say he “showed ‘em,” cousin.  He went 14-8-22 in 53 games, his 1.2 goals per 60 minutes being his best since he averaged 1.4 goals per 60 minutes in 2016-2017 with the Penguins.  Those 14 goals ranked fourth for the Caps this season.  He was also quite consistent over his ten-game splits, posting two or three even strength goals in five of the six splits (he had a power play goal in the fifth ten-game split to give him four overall in that one).  Sheary was also effective in puck protection.  He recorded 25 takeaways (fourth-best on the team among forwards) compared to only eight giveaways (fewest among Capitals forwards appearing in more than ten games) for a 3.1-to-1 ratio of takeaways to giveaways.

Cheerless’ Take… Sheary seemed to fade a bit down the stretch.  He was 11-8-19 in his first 40 games, averaging almost a half point per game and shooting to a 20.0 percent level. But in his last 13 games he was 3-0-3 and shot just 9.1 percent despite averaging 15:26 in ice time per game.

Odd Sheary Fact… Sheary’s 13 even strength goals tied for second on the club, oddly enough, with fellow ex-Penguin Daniel Sprong.

Odd Sheary Fact II… Sheary was an example of the virtues of secondary scoring.  The Caps were 11-0-1 in games in which he scored a goal.  The only loss?  Yup, to the Penguins (3-2 overtime loss on February 23rd).

Odd Sheary Fact III… Even though he posted 14 goals, a modest number, he spread them around.  He had at least one against each of the Caps’ seven East Division opponents this season, with a high of four against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Game to Remember… May 8, 2021 vs. Philadelphia.  Conor Sheary performed some of his best work this season against the Flyers (4-2-6, plus-2, in eight games), but he really put a cherry on top of the sundae in his last game against Philadelphia this season.  The Caps were coming off a 4-2 win in the first of a back-to-back set of games to close their season series against the Flyers, a game in which Sheary was shut out on the score sheet.  The second game of the set was a closer, harder fought affair in which the teams carried a scoreless tie into the third period.  Scott Laughton scored for the Flyers less than four minutes into the final frame, but Lars Eller tied things up with less than a minute left in regulation, leaving the teams to settle the matter in extra time.  With the clock ticking down to one minute left in overtime, Nic Dowd had the puck on his stick skating down the left wing.  Meanwhile, Conor Sheary was taking advantage of some lackadaisical defense by forward James van Riemsdyk and skated past him at the Flyers’ blue line.  Dowd found Sheary dashing down the middle, and with a step on van Rimesdyk, Sheary took the pass and tried goalie Alex Lyon’s five hole. 

The puck found just enough of an opening to slide over the goal line, and the Caps had a 2-1 overtime win, Sheary scoring his first overtime and first game-winning goal as a Capital.

Game to Forget… April 15, 2021 vs. Buffalo

When the Buffalo Sabres came to town on April 15th, they were facing a team on a roll.  The Caps were on a three-game winning streak in which they outscored opponents, 18-5.  Conor Sheary was a big part of that, going 3-2-5, plus-2, in those three games.  The Sabres were 1-2-1 in four games leading up to the contest and had an overall record of 10-25-7.  On paper, this should have been no contest.  It wasn’t, just not in the way Caps fans might have hoped.  After a 1-1 first period, Buffalo scored early in the second, added a shorthanded goal, and after the Caps drew back within a goal took another two-goal lead late in the period.  And empty netter in the third period capped a 5-2 Sabres win, a game Conor Sheary might want to toss in the dumpster.  In 13:48 of ice time, he recorded one shot on goal, a pair of missed shots, and did not post a mark in any other statistical category.  He was on ice, though, for three goals scored by the Sabres and finished with a season-worst minus-3.  It was a bit of a shock to the system for Sheary, this being the first game of a 13-games stretch to finish the regular season in which he was 3-0-3, minus-3 (one of the goals being the game-winner referenced above).

Postseason… Sheary’s postseason did not match his regular season.  In the five-game opening round loss to Boston he was 1-0-1, minus-4, and he was on ice for five even strength goals against, tied for most on the team.  If the Caps needed support from the bottom-six forwards, they could have used more from Sheary, but he was not alone in his struggles in this series.

Looking ahead… Sheary’s performance in the regular season warranted a reward, and he was extended in April with a two-year/$3.0 million deal.  He earned a place as a fixture on the bottom six, but he also displayed some ability to step up into a more responsible scoring role.  Having a season in Washington under his belt and a commitment from the team for two more years could provide the stability that allows him to focus even more on his on-ice performance.  In that respect, it will be interesting to see if he can improve on what was a pleasant surprise of a season.

In the end…

No one thinks of Conor Sheary as an elite offensive threat, but by the same token he seems to be underrated as an offensive performer.  It might be said of him that he fills the cracks that occur from time to time.  With the Caps being a team that might experience some significant roster movement in this off-season, having him play a steady role could help provide the kind of stability the Caps need going into next season.  He has spent a career “try, trying again;” and now it is time for him to fulfill his role on a consistent basis.

Grade: B+