WILKES-BARRE — Daniel Sprong sat at his locker stall after Tuesday’s practice and pondered the difference between being sent back down by Pittsburgh on Monday and the last time it happened two seasons ago.
“I didn’t get sent back to juniors, so that’s a good thing,” he said.
Sprong’s first demotion — which occurred early in the 2015-16 season — wasn’t unexpected. He was 18-years-old with two seasons of junior eligibility left at the time.
His second reassignment from Pittsburgh came after a much-hyped callup to the team at the end of December, when Sprong was scorching the AHL with 18 goals in 29 games. After being held without a point in his first three games with Pittsburgh, Sprong’s scoring touch surfaced when he tallied two goals and added an assist on Jan. 5 while skating on a line with Sidney Crosby. The performance seemed to signal Sprong’s permanent arrival to the NHL.
But after that game, Sprong’s points diminished as did his ice time. He was a healthy scratch for the final two games of Pittsburgh’s West Coast road trip and was sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton once the team got home.
Still, Sprong isn’t deterred, or disappointed for that matter.
“I thought I played well,” he said. “It’s just part of the process.”
Specifically, Sprong felt that he was able to utilize his strengths — his shot and speed — during his time in Pittsburgh. When asked what he needs to work on back in the AHL, Sprong said he just needs to keep playing his game to earn another trip back to the NHL.
Head coach Clark Donatelli agreed and pointed out Jake Guentzel was sent down three times before he stuck with Pittsburgh for good.
“There is no time frame for it,” Donatelli said. “I thought he was fine up there. It’s a process and he’s going to play a lot of minutes here.”
Sprong will be re-united with linemates Gage Quinney and Garrett Wilson and he made it clear that, while he’s here, the focus is on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“I’m excited to be back and get a win in Hershey (on Wednesday night),” Sprong said. “I think I showed I can play in the NHL. I have to keep playing my game and try to earn a spot the next time I get a call.”
Crowded conditions in net
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had three netminders on the ice for Tuesday’s practice — Anthony Peters, Michael Leighton and the recently-signed Charles Williams.
Leighton is working his way back from an injury and his return date is still unknown. Williams, 25, was signed to a professional tryout agreement on Jan. 19. He had been playing with Manchester in the ECHL, recording a 13-6-3 record, .918 save percentage and 2.54 goals against average in his rookie season. Before that, he put together an impressive senior season with Canisius College, posting the best save percentage in the country (.943) and tied for the national lead in shutouts (6). He was named the Atlantic Hockey Association’s Goaltender of the Year, Player of the Year and First Team All-Star.
Williams said his time with Manchester helped him adjust to the pro game.
“It’s similar to college, but the speed is a little higher and the guys make quicker plays,” he said.
With three netminders in Pittsburgh, competition in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton net is tight. Williams is aware of the situation but isn’t looking too far ahead.
“I want to come in and play my role. I don’t have any expectations except to do my best,” he said. “I don’t think too much past one day at a time.”
While Williams is new to the AHL, he is familiar to defenseman Zach Trotman. He worked out with a group of players that included Williams over the summer. Trotman came away impressed with how hard it was to score on Williams during the summer scrimmages.
“He didn’t help my confidence this summer. He was good,” Trotman said. “He’s quick, agile and very athletic.”
Tom Kostopoulos practiced in full on Tuesday and Donatelli said he isn’t ruling out his return this weekend. Lukas Bengtsson is also a possibility to return.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky