Less than a year after being a bystander on the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup run, Daniel Sprong is ready to be a leader on the Charlottetown Islanders' quest for a President's Cup.
The Islanders open the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League post-season on Friday night against the Baie-Comeau Drakkar. Charlottetown is coming off perhaps its finest QMJHL season ever thanks to a late-season surge fuelled largely by Sprong.
The Dutch native scored 32 goals and added 27 assists in just 31 games for the Islanders (46-18-4), who finished fourth overall and set a franchise record for wins in a season. Charlottetown won 17 of its last 21 games, including a stretch of nine-straight wins.
Sprong missed a large chunk of the season with a torn labrum suffered while on the Penguins' practice roster during their Stanley Cup victory last spring over the San Jose Sharks. Surgery on Sprong's right shoulder sidelined him for over seven months, and the winger rehabbed in Pittsburgh before returning to Charlottetown and making his season debut on Jan. 6.
Despite the setback, the 20-year-old says that he relished the opportunity to be around NHL stars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
"It was pretty cool to see it all happen," said Sprong, who was drafted 46th overall by Pittsburgh in the 2015 NHL draft. "Unfortunately I got a tough injury but it's pretty cool to be on the ice there with the Stanley Cup."
Sprong's return came at an opportune time for the Islanders as rivals were arming for a playoff run with major trades.
"It's the blockbuster deal that doesn't cost you anything," said Islanders head coach Jim Hulton. "You look at the other big moves in the league with Blainville going out to get Pierre-Luc Dubois but it cost them four assets and St. John going to get Julien Gauthier.
"We knew all we had to do was survive the first half and put ourselves in a good position that Daniel would be back giving us a huge boost. And he's done that and more."
Charlottetown and Baie-Comeau split the regular-season series with their last matchup coming on Nov. 3. Hulton says that although the Drakkar are inexperienced, theyâ€™ve been one of the better teams in the second half of the season.
"They've got some quality performances from Antoine Samuel in net so we know that they play a gritty, scrappy, underdog, in your face role," Hulton said. "They're going to try and use their youthful enthusiasm and we have to use our veteran experience."
The Charlottetown franchise has never made it past the second round of the post-season since being founded in 1999. A second-round exit last year against Shawinigan prompted the firing of general manager Grant Sonier with Hulton taking over as coach/GM.
He proceeded to overhaul his coaching staff by bringing in former university teammate Guy Girouard along with Brad Mackenzie as assistants.
Sprong, who started the 2015-16 season by scoring two goals in 18 games with the Penguins before being sent back to Charlottetown, says that he's noticed more of a winning mentality this season.
"I think the first three years were just rough. We weren't very good in all three years," Sprong said. "This year was really the year we were going to go for it and I'm just happy that the coaching staff believes in this core and believed that this team can take a run."
Charlottetown was busy at the trade deadline, acquiring players such as Francois Beauchemin and Alex Dostie. Beauchemin, who finished the season third in league scoring with 97 points, plays on a line with Sprong and Dostie. Itâ€™s a reunion of sorts for Sprong and Beauchemin, who played together in the summer growing up in Montreal.
The Islanders' recent success has Sprong and the rest of the team thinking of a long playoff run and the veteran forward feels as though a QMJHL title, and layer a Memorial Cup, are realistic goals.
"I think thereâ€™s a lot of good teams in the league but I think there's five teams above the rest," Sprong said. "We believe if we play the right way that we can go far."
Ryan McKenna, The Canadian Press