SAN JOSE -- When Sharks winger Joonas Donskoi first tried to make the team in 2015, he didn’t know it would be so hard to get a cell phone.
“I was trying to get a phone plan, and they said I had no history in the [United States], so I had to pay a deposit for pretty much anything I do,” Donskoi recalled Tuesday at the Sharks practice facility.
To that point, the forward had only played professionally in his home country of Finland. But after spending parts of six years playing for Karpat in Liiga, the country's top league, Donskoi signed with San Jose in May 2015, with the hopes of cracking the NHL. He made the team out of camp, and hasn’t spent a minute in the minors, despite initially struggling learning a new language and acclimating to a new country.
Still, Donskoi said, having a familiar face would’ve helped.
“Oh for sure. I had my biggest problems maybe off the ice, and my language was not that perfect,” Donskoi said. “A lot of things were new for me, and it was really hard at the beginning.”
Now, Donskoi has an opportunity to pass on what he learned. Fellow Finnish forward Antti Suomela is trying to make the same transition Donskoi made three years ago, and make the Sharks’ opening night roster in his first NHL training camp.
Suomela, a center, signed a one-year, entry-level deal with San Jose on June 6. He led SM-liiga in scoring last season with 60 points (21 goals, 39 assists), and won a European Champions Hockey League title with JYP.
The 24-year-old likely would have competed for the team’s fourth-line center spot, but center Chris Tierney’s inclusion in the Erik Karlsson trade created an opening down the middle of the team’s third line as well. That’s where Suomela has spent much of camp, skating with Kevin Labanc on one wing, and Donskoi on the other in most practices, as well as two preseason games.
Donskoi didn’t meet Suomela before he signed with San Jose, but spoke with him when he was thinking about joining the Sharks. Since Suomela’s been in camp, Donskoi’s tried to help his adjustment on the ice and off of it. The rookie is still learning the language, but Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said Donskoi’s helped bridge any gaps.
“It’s nice that Joonas is there to kind of interpret for him when he doesn’t understand what’s going on,” DeBoer said, “but to also help him on the ice. I think when you have a familiar guy that plays the same way you do, it makes the transition easier.”
Suomela’s played in all three of San Jose’s preseason games, but did not travel with the team Tuesday for their game in Calgary against the Flames. He scored three points in his second game, but did not have a shot on goal in his third on Saturday.
The rookie found nice chemistry with Labanc and Donskoi in the first two games, as the Sharks attempted two-thirds of the five-on-five shots -- and nearly 78 percent of the scoring chances -- with the trio on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. Without Labanc and Donskoi on Saturday, San Jose was out-attempted 9-6 and out-chanced 3-1.
“I think he’s done a good job,” DeBoer said. “I thought his first game, he was feeling things out. I thought the second game was fantastic. I thought the third game was okay. He’ll get another game here, and it’s gonna be an important one.”
Thursday figures to be the closest approximation to the Sharks’ opening night lineup. DeBoer said the plan is for Karlsson to play against the Flames that night at SAP Center for his first game of the preseason, barring some last-minute looks at other players competing for spots. Where Suomela is penciled in, and his performance thereafter, should provide insight into his bid to stay in the NHL after camp.
In the meantime, Donskoi will continue to help his countryman acclimate to life in San Jose. So far, he's made sure to keep his linemate in his sights outside of practice, too.
“I’ve just been going with him everywhere he goes,” Donskoi said with a laugh. “His English is probably not the best yet, so I’m just trying to help him as much as I can.”
Everywhere, one imagines, will surely include a trip to buy a cell phone.