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Sprong embracing the process in Charlottetown

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Daniel Sprong's numbers with the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL are, quite simply, remarkable.

He's got 31 goals and 52 points in just 28 games since returning to the lineup in January after recovering from a shoulder injury, including a recent seven-point effort where he tallied four goals and three assists.

But there's one number in particular Sprong is especially proud of, and that's his plus-minus rating.

"Working on the defensive side of my game, making sure I don't leave the zone early or making sure the puck comes out first, just being reliable out there - I think a big indication of that this year is how I changed my plus-minus," Sprong said. "I was always a minus player in the league. This year, a big plus."

His first year, Sprong was a minus-20. His second year, a minus-23. His third year, a minus-7. This year? A plus-31.

"Plus-minus is a funny stat when people use it conveniently," Pens assistant general manager Bill Guerin said. "But when it's drastic one way or another, it really does tell you something. And the fact that he's so high in the plus category does tell us that he's doing the job in the defensive zone and for us, it's such a big improvement."

For Guerin, what has impressed him the most about Sprong's play this season is the maturity with which he's approaching his game.

"He's not cheating to get offensive success; his offensive success is coming because he's talented and he's trying to play the best two-way hockey he can," Guerin said. "Anything that his coaches and/or I talk about, he's trying to implement. To me, that's a good sign of maturity and that's always the biggest hurdle.

"He's got God-given ability and that's not going to go anywhere. It's just working on the rounded game and he's doing that."

There have certainly been a lot of ups and downs for Sprong since the Pens took him with their first selection of the 2015 NHL Draft (second round, 46th overall). He made the NHL roster out of training camp that fall, and ended up playing 18 games with Pittsburgh before getting sent back to Charlottetown.

After his season in the QMJHL ended, Sprong joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for their playoff run - recording five goals and 7 points in 10 games - before becoming part of the 'Black Aces,' where he injured his shoulder during a practice and was given a 7-8 month timeline for recovery after undergoing surgery in June.

After rehabbing for a while in Pittsburgh, Sprong returned to Charlottetown - where the focus was working on getting his game back when he returned to the lineup in January.

"It was a long process and looking back at it now, the team did a great job helping me," Sprong said. "I think when I started playing again, it took maybe 3-5 games for me to really feel like myself again. The first two games I felt really off, the third game it got a little better and then each game got better."

Now, Sprong said he's really found his game the last month and a half by playing the right way and just focusing on trying to help the team win.

"I think this year, playing junior as a 19-year-old, coming off the shoulder, I knew what I could do in the league from the years past," he said. "But I just wanted to have a good season and be ready for next year's training camp. That's the goal since I got sent down, is to make every day better and be ready for next year when training camp happens."

In the meantime, he's embracing the process, as Mike Sullivan likes to say, up in Charlottetown.

"I think through all this, he's learned to manage his own expectations and is more willing to go through the process than just to jump right in there," Guerin said. "I think that's a big step."

And right now, the only step they're thinking about is with Charlottetown, who has three games left in the regular season before playoffs begin.

"We're a good team this year," Sprong said. "It's not like my last three years where we can lose in the first or second round. This year we really have a chance to go far, so it's nice just to focus on this and play out the rest of the season. And with playoffs coming up, you know you can be on a deep run and go all the way. So it's an exciting year and it's my focus right now, with Charlottetown. Whatever happens after that, happens. But right now the main focus is playing well here."

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