The time is right for Ryan Donato to begin his NHL career.
The 21-year-old Harvard junior signed a two-year contract with the Boston Bruins on Sunday night, and is likely to make his NHL debut on Monday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
With Boston in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and with a chance to claim the top spot in the East and the President’s Trophy, it might seem like an odd time to thrust a rookie onto their roster.
But there are a multitude of reasons as to why this is a smart move for GM Don Sweeney and the Boston Bruins to make.
First off, Donato is one of the top prospects in the entire league, and his skill set will make the Bruins better right now. Donato made himself a household name with Team USA at this year’s Winter Olympics with five goals and one assist in five games. He’s currently a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award for best collegiate hockey player, and his season came to an abrupt end on Friday night.
In a conference call on Sunday night, Sweeney spoke highly of both the on and off-ice attributes of his newest acquisition, stating that he believes Donato is ready to contribute at the NHL level due to his experience and performance both at the college level and on the Olympic team. He describes Donato as a smart kid who has a great hockey mind, someone that is heavy on the puck, and a player who doesn’t want to give up the puck when he has it but immediately wants it back if it’s not on his stick.
Plus, he has a penchant for some dramatic and outrageous goals, like this one in the ECAC quarterfinals last Monday:
How did he do that? pic.twitter.com/WCUQrALHwf
— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) March 12, 2018
With the B’s dealing with several injuries to their forward group, a move would have been necessary prior to Monday’s contest with the Blue Jackets to fill out the roster. Boston is currently missing three key forwards – Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, and Jake DeBrusk – and has been without extra bodies at recent practice sessions, which are few and far between thanks to their compressed schedule.
Backes is the latest Bruin to miss time, as he is dealing with a laceration to his leg that required 18 stitches. He is back with the team and was checked out by team doctors on Sunday, but is likely to miss at least a couple games as the cut heals. Bergeron is still recovering from a fracture in his foot, but could rejoin the B’s during their upcoming four-game road trip, while DeBrusk has no timetable for his return from an upper-body injury. With Boston having games every other night from now until the final weekend of the regular season – when the B’s play on both Saturday and Sunday – the need for healthy, energized bodies is at a premium.
A young jolt to the lineup could be just what the Bruins need, amidst their injuries and their hectic schedule, to catch the Lightning in the Atlantic Division standings. Boston is currently four points behind Tampa Bay with two games in hand for the top spot in the East, and have a five-point cushion with those same two games in hand over the Toronto Maple Leafs for second place and home ice advantage. Unless something dramatic happens, Boston will likely have a top-2 seed in the Atlantic, so integrating another young player into their lineup should have minimal effect on their standings.
Donato could be set up to thrive in Boston’s system, as young skaters have excelled with Bruce Cassidy at the helm. Sweeney remarked that Cassidy is very receptive of working with and utilizing young players, but also keeps them accountable. DeBrusk, Anders Bjork, and Danton Heinen have all watched at least one game from the rafters when their play regressed, but Cassidy has also been willing to lean on inexperienced players during high-pressure situations.
Sweeney also brought up the development of David Pastrnak as an example of how players grow on this team. Pastrnak has been in the league for four seasons, but is just 21 years old, and is still learning on the job as he is becoming one of the best young forwards in the game. Pastrnak has gone through his rough patches, and been frustrating to the fans at times, but he’s also capable of taking over games (like the third-period hat-trick he unleashed in Boston’s unbelievable comeback last week vs. Carolina).
Boston has a deep roster even with the injuries, and has a great mix of veterans and young players. Sweeney added more experience at the trade deadline, with Donato’s Team USA teammate Brian Gionta rapidly becoming a valuable piece of the Bruins. Having a familiar face in the locker room should ease Donato’s transition into the professional level, and learning from people like Gionta, Zdeno Chara, Rick Nash, Tommy Wingels, Bergeron, and Backes – to name a few – should accelerate the learning curve of a college junior.
The only real downfall to beginning Donato’s NHL journey is losing a year on his contract. But the positives will likely outweigh that one negative.
It shouldn’t be expected that Donato will just jump right into the lineup and produce flashy goals like he did in college and at the Olympics. There will obviously be bumps in the road, and opposing teams will likely target the rookie to gauge how he performs defensively and with the physicality of the NHL. And once the forwards become healthy again, Boston may not need to rely heavily – or at all – on the production of a 21-year-old recently removed from the Ivy League.
If Donato excels, or just becomes a solid contributor on a team that is poised to make a deep run in the postseason, then the decision to make him a pro right out of college will be justified.
It’s clearly a risk, but one that Don Sweeney and the Boston Bruins need to take to attempt to bring home another trophy and fire up those duck boats.