Sometimes, dreams do come true. For Ryan Donato, being drafted by the Boston Bruins – his hometown team and the team his father Ted Donato played for in the 1990s, was exactly that. Playing hockey at Harvard with his father as the head coach, Donato has already lived the dream of any Boston-native hockey player.
Still, his goals are so much higher than simply being drafted and playing at Harvard. Given how skilled and talented he is, it’s no surprise to hear that Donato is also a major candidate to play in the 2018 Olympics, representing his country at the highest level on the planet due to the NHL not sending its players to the competition this year.
Realistically, the only thing that could make this season better for the 21-year-old center would be to get an opportunity to play for the Boston Bruins in 2017-18. Fortunately for Donato, if Pierre McGuire is to be believed, there’s a distinct possibility that could happen following the Olympics.
As is par for the course, McGuire joined Mitch Melnick on the TSN 690 radio segment in Montreal and mentioned that Donato would be joining the Bruins following the Olympics. It was a subtle statement amidst McGuire’s discussion with Melnick about Alexander Kerfoot – Donato’s former linemate at Harvard, but it was still one that garnered some attention on social media.
While it’s true that sometimes dreams do come true, Donato signing with the Bruins in the middle of his season at Harvard (and in the middle of the Bruins season in the NHL) simply doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Entry-Level Contracts of the Utmost Importance
Donato will be a really good Boston Bruin one day. When he was drafted in 2014, he instantly became one of the most skilled players in a system that is now chalk full of young talent. Developing at Harvard and fine-tuning his game close to the Bruins’ brass while playing in Cambridge, Massachusets, the second-round talent looks like he’s absolutely the real deal. While Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are still firmly holding their spots as the Bruins’ top-two centers, somewhere down the line Donato should get a chance to fill one of those two spots along with Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson.
For now, however, the Bruins just can’t justify burning a year of his entry-level contract in the middle of the season. As it stands, the team is already going to have to deal with Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen, Kenny Agostino, Forsbacka Karlsson, Rob O’Gara, Matt Grzelcyk, Peter Cehlarik, Zane McIntyre and Austin Czarnik seeking new deals over the next two seasons. Additionally, they’ll have to think about paying Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk and Torey Krug following the 2019-20 season. For reference, both Kevan Miller and Matt Beleskey come off the books that offseason as well.
Signing Donato now and playing him at the NHL level would mean he would be up for a contract at the same time as the latter three. If the Bruins wait a season and sign Donato with the intention of playing him in 2018-19, they would buy themselves another year to figure out the salary cap-implications – Rask’s contract would come off the books at the same time. Assuming the Bruins would be able to sign him to a team-friendly deal or find a new goaltender by then, fitting Donato’s contract at that time would be much easier.
Outside of pure salary cap implications, the bigger question surrounding Donato’s place on the Bruins circles around his place in the current lineup.
No Room for Donato This Season
Has there ever been a roster more in flux in Boston than the one in 2017-18? It’s impossible to know who’s going to play with the team in any given week as there are just so many viable options who can fill a variety of roles. As it stands, two of the Bruins’ prospects in Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk appear to be fairly secure in the top-six. They’ve played admirably to this point in the season and they have cemented themselves above other prospects fighting for jobs as well, at least for now.
It’s led to a pretty good problem for the Bruins. With Agostino, Heinen and Cehlarik all capable of playing a top-six role for the Bruins right now, the fact that only one of them can currently be slotted onto the team’s third line is a testament to what Don Sweeney is building in Boston. Though Ryan Spooner is hurt, he’s still the prime candidate to return to his usual third-line center role once he’s healthy. David Backes then fills out the remaining slot on that line.
It’s for that exact reason that so many talented prospects are playing in Providence right now and why Forsbacka Karlsson hasn’t seen a single game of NHL action this year. There are only so many roster spots to go around.
In addition to the players named above, there’s also Sean Kuraly, Frank Vatrano, Tim Schaller, Noel Acciari, Riley Nash, Beleskey and others who also figure to factor into the equation somewhere – though some are more deserving of spots than others. The number of NHL-capable players who are part of the Bruins’ system right now is impressive, but it also means Donato probably can’t find a spot in the lineup at this juncture.
Another factor that goes into the whole narrative is the fact that leaving Harvard early probably doesn’t make a lot of sense from Donato’s perspective either.
Donato Looking for NCAA Title
Playing under his father and alongside his brother Jack at Harvard, Donato is primed for a legitimate run at the NCAA title. Leaving school in the middle of his season would not only completely remove his chances at competing for college hockey’s highest honor, but it would also undoubtedly damage the Crimson’s chances at succeeding without him.
If there was ever any question about how big of a role Donato would take in his third season those were very quickly put to rest Saturday as the Junior forward scored two goals and four points in the first period and completed his hat trick prior to the end of the second period in a 7-2 exhibition win against the United States National Development team (NTDP).
Donato will all but surely make an NHL roster one day. While that day could come in 2017-18, it would be best for both the Bruins and their young budding prospect to be patient. After all, Donato can sign a contract and play in the NHL, but if he makes that decision, he’ll never be able to change it and he might always wonder what might have been at Harvard in 2017-18.
Brandon Share-Cohen has covered the NHL and various professional sports for six years. Working with The Hockey Writers, Brandon works extensively on covering the Boston Bruins in addition to his role as the News Team Lead.