It was a rough start to the 2018-19 season for Ryan Donato.
Despite a plethora of injuries to the Bruins, a forward group that simply couldn’t score outside of the team’s top line and a legitimate chance to prove himself, Donato failed to separate himself from the pack for the right reasons. Instead, he seemed so snake-bitten that he was standing out for all the wrong reasons.
A season ago when Donato made his debut in Boston, he was fresh off of an excellent season in the collegiate ranks with the Harvard Crimson as well as an Olympic bid that saw him perform better than just about every single one of his teammates. With a head full of steam and all of the hype in the world on his shoulders, Donato performed admirably in front of his hometown fans and had Bruins’ fans all but chanting “MVP” for their newest savior.
Scoring five goals and nine points in your first 12 NHL games while playing at all three forward positions will certainly evoke that kind of reaction.
Still, Donato would only play in three postseason games through the first two rounds of the playoffs and would have to wait until the 2018-19 regular season to really show that he was far from a flash in the pan.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened.
Donato’s Second Season Started Slowly
Despite getting a chance to play in the top-six at times, Donato would struggle. He wasn’t shooting as often, he wasn’t making positive plays along the boards or in the neutral zone, he didn’t look as dynamic and above all, he was a liability without the puck.
This would lead to Donato’s assignment to the AHL to figure things out while the Bruins worked hard at figuring their own situation out at the NHL level. This was the right move for Donato as it let him play with more time and space against lesser talent. Above all, it gave Donato a chance to gain some confidence while learning how to play a more well-rounded game.
With five goals and nine points in 10 games, it was clear that Donato was feeling it in Providence. He was improving on a game-to-game basis and was doing the things that he does well at a more natural pace.
When the Bruins opted to send Anders Bjork to the AHL for a similar type of learning experience, Donato was the logical recall.
Donato Turning a Corner in Boston
In Donato’s first 11 games of the season (prior to the assignment to Providence), he had taken only 12 shots, including a stretch of three games without a shot at one point. Since being recalled, the 22-year-old has skated in seven games and has taken an impressive 21 shots on net.
It may seem like a small thing given the fact that more shots doesn’t necessarily mean more quality opportunities. Still, seeing Donato feel the comfortability to shoot the puck and find certain lanes that were hitting the net is a step forward from where he was to start the year, even if it isn’t coming at the center ice position.
In his last three games alone, Donato has seen his ice time increase from 10:04 to 12:10 and most recently 15:27. If he can continue to look confident and play with this accountability, there’s no reason to think he can’t be the player everybody thought he could be at the start of the season.
It’s already starting to show on the scoresheet, too.
Though he would only record one goal in his first 11 games in the NHL this season, he’s already scored two goals and four points in seven games since his return to the NHL. He’s yet to go a single game without taking fewer than two shots on goal and he’s even found chemistry alongside Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Danton Heinen on the Bruins’ newest line.
New Third Line Reaping the Benefits
While much of the attention has been turned towards the Bruins’ top-line that features David Krejci flanked by Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in the absence of Patrice Bergeron, this new “kid line” has stepped up and made all the difference in the Bruins’ wins against the Toronto Maple Leafs and most recently the Arizona Coyotes.
Having more than one line that can produce offense is so important in the NHL and the Bruins forwards have seemingly found a new gear over their last few games. This has to be encouraging for management and the coaching staff as Bergeron should find himself back in action in due time.
If the Bruins new-look third line can continue to play so well when given the chance, then the Bruins could be closer to the contender everybody thought they were to start the season than they’ve looked like for much of the year.
While it might be enticing to use one of Heinen or Donato in the top-six when Bergeron is healthy again, the Bruins should refrain from doing so. With Bergeron and DeBrusk back in the top-six, the team will be missing one winger to fully complete an effective top-nine. Whether that player is Anders Bjork, a continued usage of Joakim Nordstrom or even a trade target like Charlie Coyle, one thing is clear; Donato, Forsbacka Karlsson and Heinen should be kept together until they stop consistently performing.