(JEANINE LEECH/ICON SPORTSWIRE)
Daniel Sprong deserves to open the season with the Penguins. He had a brilliant training camp. Sprong combined speed, precision, intensity and a blurry fast release to wow observers inside and outside the organization.
Sprong is 18, a second-round choice in this year's draft. His performance since arriving in Pittsburgh makes one wonder why Sprong escaped the first round. It's good to see the Penguins in possession of a top-notch forward prospect. Sprong brings the organization's total thereof to exactly one.
It would have been easiest to return Sprong to Junior A. That may yet happen. The NHL's collective bargaining agreement allows Sprong to play nine NHL games before the Penguins send him back to his junior team on Prince Edward Island or his entry-level contract kicks in. The CBA won’t let Sprong play minor pro.
Right now, Sprong is in Pittsburgh. He should be.
Now, what will the Penguins do with him?
Sprong is a right wing. Sprong’s skill set dictates he plays on the first two lines. That won't happen for two reasons: Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist.
Beau Bennett had a good preseason, too. He is also a right wing with tools best utilized on the first or second line. Coach Mike Johnston thinks Bennett can play either wing. Johnston is incorrect. Bennett is weak on the left side.
Who plays where? Neither Sprong nor Bennett has anything like traditional bottom-six grit, but today's NHL is mostly finesse. Read: Mostly bland. Over-expansion keeps the league from being outstanding in any regard.
There's no right or wrong answer regarding Sprong's usage. Only what works.
Giving roster spots to those who perform best at camp is an idea not followed often enough. GM Jim Rutherford can't be faulted for minimizing predetermined notions.
But playing Sprong with bottom-six talent carries a risk.
Aleksey Morozov was the Penguins' first-round draft pick in 1995. Morozov filled a bottom-six role with chip-and-chase scrubs for too long, then betrayed his pedigree and became a chip-and-chase scrub.
Markus Naslund was the Penguins' first-round draft pick in 1991. Naslund rarely got a chance to play with top talent on a team caked with it. He struggled in Pittsburgh, but went to Vancouver and scored 346 goals in 884 games.
Rewarding Sprong for a great camp makes sense. Utilizing him incorrectly for an extended period does not.
But last season, the Penguins scored just 221 goals. Only 11 NHL teams scored fewer. The Penguins were shockingly boring for a team that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. More offense is good. If Sprong skates bottom six and can still play his game, so be it.
Unlike Sprong, defenseman Sergei Gonchar did not deserve to make the Penguins. Despite the likely preference of fellow Russian Malkin, Gonchar got cut.
Gonchar, 41, had a terrible preseason, especially in the exhibition games. Losing a step or two (or three) combined with Gonchar’s usual lack of physicality in front of the net to make him a constant minus.
Gonchar should be remembered very fondly in Pittsburgh. He was the power play's organizer and glue, and it hasn’t been the same since he left following the 2009-10 season. He was a consummate pro, setting a standard for off-ice preparation.
Gonchar has the absolute respect of Crosby and Malkin. When he talked, they listened. Gonchar has never been replaced in that regard.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).