Since returning to the Charlottetown Islanders Daniel Sprong has been tearing through the QMJHL. In his first 19 games he’s scored 18 goals and has 13 assists for 31 points.
It has been a long, arduous process back to hockey after undergoing shoulder surgery in June.
The scary thing – if you’re the opposition – is that the 19-year-old admits he’s not quite at 100 per cent yet.
“I’m getting there,” said Sprong. “I think the first five games I was just trying to get everything going again – getting my legs going again – and getting into the game rhythm. I didn’t feel great.
“I think the last few weeks have really brought my game to a new level and starting to hit that level where I feel like I’m at mid-season form.”
Sprong injured his right shoulder during the Stanley Cup playoffs when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins as an extra skater. At the time, doctors suggested it would take 7-8 months for his return. Sprong found himself slightly ahead of schedule thanks to his hard work with the Penguins’ physiotherapy staff.
He started skating alone two months into the process. At five months he was allowed to shoot the puck, and then a month later he was finally cleared for contact. For someone who was used to being at the top of his game, the progression was slow even though he was healing quickly.
“It was a really long process and I think I wanted to see how fast I could get to the next step,” said Sprong. “It was frustrating watching a lot of games, but if I look back at it now I accomplished a lot with my shoulder and how well I did with the rehab.”
Once he got back to Charlottetown, head coach and general manager Jim Hulton, wanted to make sure Sprong was eased back gradually into the lineup – despite the winger’s eagerness to go full-bore.
“We had to temper expectations because we knew there was going to be some game rust – and there was – I think he’s just starting to find his stride now,” said Hulton. “We had to talk him through it and say, ‘You’re not going to step into the same level that you finished off at last year (in the NHL) so just be patient with it.’ ”
Armed with the knowledge of Sprong’s return, Hulton decided to make his pitch for the President’s Cup by adding some big names at the deadline including Sprong’s linemates Francois Beauchemin and Alex Dostie. The new faces have bolstered the Islanders’ already potent offence with the likes of top scorer Filip Chlapik, Kameron Kielly and Sprong.
As one of the Maritime powerhouses, it also means there’s less pressure on Sprong to be the sole catalyst for Charlottetown’s scoring.
“Last year when he came back (from the NHL) we were in 17th place and dead in the water,” said Hulton. “Everything rested on his shoulders. This year we were in a good position when he came back so we tried to say to him, ‘Look, you’re a really good player, but it’s not all on you. There are going to be nights when you get blanked on the scoresheet and we’re still going to win.’ That’s the sign of a good team.”
Sprong said he appreciates having a more balanced attack because it also means he’s not being targeted by extra coverage by the opposition.
“On our line with Beauchemin and Dostie we know all of us can score and that makes it easier to play with each other as well,” said Sprong. “It makes it harder on the other team because they’re not just focusing on one guy – now they have to focus on five or six guys every night.”
Sprong said the disappointment of his injury and the fact he’s back in junior again have been tempered by how good the team in Charlottetown has been this season. For the forward who started his career as a first-round pick of the Islanders in 2013, there have been some lean years with the team. It’s been a while since Sprong has been pumped about the team’s playoff prospects and finishing his junior career on a winning note would be worth those countless hours of rehab.
“It’s going to be fun to go for it this year,” said Sprong. “There are still a lot of games left, but we’re all excited for a long playoff run – I know I am and a lot of the older guys who are in their last year of junior – we all want to see how far we can go.”