Sharks Find Diamond in the Rough in Donato

The day before the 2020 NHL Draft, the San Jose Sharks and the Minnesota Wild made two trades. First, they acquired forward Ryan Donato for a 2021 third-round pick and later in the day they brought in goaltender Devan Dubnyk and a seventh-round pick in 2022 for a fifth-round pick in 2022. The Wild are retaining 50% of Dubnyk’s salary, so $2,166,667 will count against the salary cap for the Sharks.

Minnesota Wild's Ryan Donato Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien
Minnesota Wild’s Ryan Donato and Winnipeg Jets’ Dustin Byfuglien (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

Focusing on Donato, the Sharks may have found themselves a real diamond in the rough. Originally a second-round pick back in 2014 by the Boston Bruins, he has failed to live up to high expectations after three successful seasons at Harvard of the NCAA. He has also been underwhelming after splitting his first three NHL seasons between the Bruins and the Wild. Donato was part of the trade that landed the Bruins Charlie Coyle. Here are some reasons why Donato may still be a successful NHL player after all and reach his potential with the Sharks.

High Goals Above Replacement

Goals above replacement (GAR) is a metric that takes into account many factors to measure the impact of a player on their team. It includes, among other things, even strength unblocked shots for and against, and even strength goals and goals against. It places an emphasis on even strength because that is more predictable than shorthanded and power play situations, which are prone to variance. 

The offensive upside Ryan Donato has should benefit the San Jose Sharks.

GAR can also be expressed as a rate statistic, for example GAR per 60 minutes (GAR/60). This uses actual numbers, but sometimes a more accurate depiction is expected GAR/60 (xGAR/60), which uses the expected goals model. Using this model, we can see that Donato is actually a really good player and perhaps was under utilized in Minnesota. According to Evolving Hockey, Donato led the Wild in 2019-20 in xGAR/60.

Ryan Donato showing off his soft hands and excellent shot.

His .682 xGAR/60 was quite a bit ahead of breakout star Kevin Fiala at .494, who was just ahead of Jason Zucker at .484. To put that number for Donato into context, if you look at all the forwards in the NHL in 2019-20 who played at least 600 minutes, Donato was 14th. That is ahead of noted stars Mikko Rantanen, Evgeni Malkin, Artemi Panarin, and Jack Eichel. For the record, the leaders of that list are Jake Guentzel, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Brad Marchand.

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In terms of actual number, his points per 60 minutes (points/60) are also pretty good. At 5-on-5, Donato’s points/60 lands him 70th in the league for forwards with more than 600 minutes played. That is in the neighborhood of Mark Scheifele, Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, and Rantanen. It sure seems like with more ice time, he could be closer to the actual production of those players with whom he shares similar rate statistics.

Time Was Not on His Side

One major factor that made Donato far less effective overall than some of those stars on the xGAR/60 list is his power-play time. In his first season with the Bruins in 2017-18, he had the highest power-play time on ice per game (PPTOI/G) of his career at 2:28, which was good enough for seventh on the team. That decreased in 2018-19 when he was traded from the Bruins to Wild to 2:04, and in 2019-20 with the Wild exclusively, it was only 44 seconds. According to the frozen tools at Dobber Hockey, 44 seconds of PPTOI/G was good for only the 270th most in the league for all forwards, putting him in the range of Derek Grant and Sam Bennett.

Kevin Labanc (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It is unclear whether he will get first unit power-play time with the Sharks. Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Evander Kane are locks, while they may run with both Norris Trophy defensemen Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns or leave one more spot for a forward. That forward has been Kevin LaBanc, who is a restricted free agent and needs a new contract. There is also emerging star Timo Meier who is clamouring for a spot. At the very least, Donato will get second unit time and his PPTOI/G should increase. 

Ryan Donato might have to compete with emerging star Timo Meier for top power play minutes.

Donato’s even strength ice time also went down from 14:42 to 13:42 to 10:38 over the past three seasons. At the same time, his rate statistics continued to show he was an effective NHL forward. I think it is clear he can get more than 10:38 of ice time on the Sharks, but how high it goes beyond 12-14 minutes depends on how he looks in teal. He will no doubt get an opportunity, along with a bevy of young prospects the Sharks hope are ready for a new role.

Two-Way Game

Donato is a surprisingly good two-way player. One of the best indicators of this is Corsi +/-, which is the combination of Corsi for and Corsi against. Corsi is all shot attempts toward the net — a great proxy for which team is controlling the play. If you control the play, you are more likely to get shot attempts. This can also be expressed as a rate, which is important to compare players who play differing amounts.

Looking at Corsi +/- per 60 for the Wild on 2019-20, Donato was the eighth-best forward. He was ahead of Eric Staal, Jason Zucker, Zach Parise, and Mats Zuccarello. While eighth best isn’t fantastic, it sure seems like he deserved more than the 17th-most amount of ice time. Luke Johnson, Gerald Mayhew, and Gabriel Dumont were getting more ice time than Donato. 

Logan Couture San Jose Sharks
Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Donato’s Corsi +/- per 60 would have placed him eighth on the Sharks, ahead of Couture and Kane. Of course, it should be noted that who each of these players play against certainly matters. I am not saying that Donato is a better two-way player than Couture, but rather that he holds his own against likely lesser competition. Couture and Kane faced all the other team’s best shut-down lines and defensive pairings last season and will likely continue to do so.

Realistic Expectations

By all indications, Donato can play in the NHL, albeit in perhaps a bit of a depth role. The Sharks need help at center and on the right side. It doesn’t seem like Donato has played right wing, but he might get a look there. The left side is the Sharks’ strength with Kane and Meier, two of their top forwards lining up there. Beyond Hertl and Couture, there are major question marks at center, so Donato probably gets a look there.

Alexander True San Jose Sharks
Alexander True, San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The other centers looking to fill the void down the middle for the Sharks include prospects Alexander True, Joel Kellman, Noah Gregor, Antti Suomela, and Alexander Chmelevski. Danish forward True looked good for the 12 games he suited up for the Sharks in 2019-20. He was one of the few Sharks with a positive Corsi +/- per 60 finishing seventh, albeit with a small sample size. He might be one of the front runners.

Noah Gregor San Jose Sharks
Noah Gregor, San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Gregor is another who seems poised to maybe accept that role, though his play-driving numbers aren’t as strong. He likes to throw the body and the Sharks seem to like the physical aspect of his game. Suomela and Chmelevski are much longer shots as they have been playing primarily in the American Hockey League to this point and don’t seem to be dominating, but doing okay.

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I expect Donato to get tried at center, either with the second or first line. Where he ends up might depend on with whom he clicks. He will likely also get some time on his off wing, the right side, to see if he can click in a top-six role. Worst case scenario, he can play left wing on the third line or second line if Meier can flip to the right side, which he has done. All-in-all, there is reason for some optimism as the Sharks may have traded for a player whose best NHL days are ahead of him.

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