BRIGHTON, Mass – It’s not a lock until the puck drops opening night on Oct. 3, but it certainly looks like Ryan Donato is going to start this season just as he finished last year. That means Donato will be suiting up for the Bruins in a top-9 winger role where his offensive skills and natural hockey instincts can be used as a big asset for the Black and Gold.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising given that Donato finished strong with five goals and nine points in 12 regular season games once he’d signed out of Harvard, and then the 22-year-old found his way into the B’s lineup at the end of the playoffs as well. At this point Donato finds himself with a couple of different options dependent on the way the rest of the lineup shakes out, but as it stands now it looks like he’ll be either right wing on David Krejci’s line, or manning his natural left wing spot in a third line role with a center to be named later and David Backes.
It’s interesting that the Bruins shied away from using Donato on the right side during last year’s playoffs, but he’s certainly being viewed in a different light this fall after getting some NHL experience under his belt.
“Some of it is circumstance, right? We’re looking to fill that spot. Danton Heinen has looked really good [on the right side] from what I’ve been told. Those are probably options A and B to play on that right side [with Krejci]. I just think coming in at that time of the year last year, [for Donato] it was ‘get one position down.’ He’s got a little more experience under his belt and with the training he’s put in he’s stronger and faster,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Maybe in tight spaces he’ll be stronger on pucks on that off side. But we’ll see. He’s been fine on both sides.”
Either spot would put him in a good position to create offense, obviously, but the right wing position alongside Krejci and Jake DeBrusk would certainly a little more of a premium spot for a talented, natural goal-scorer.
“One thing about Ryan is that he doesn’t overthink things. He just plays no matter what side of the ice he’s on. His strength is still offense,” said Cassidy. “He’s going to produce there no matter which side he’s on. Donato is a bit of a wild card. He doesn’t have a lot of experience, but we like where he’s at. We think that when he’s ‘on’ he can certainly [play a top-6 role]. He’s proven he can score in a short period of time in this league, and he’s doing it again in the exhibition season.”
To Donato’s credit, he’s not taking anything for granted and has the attitude that he needs to win an NHL roster spot with his work in training camp. So far he’s been very good and it’s clear to everybody that the 22-year-old got bigger, stronger and maybe even a little faster over the summer after diligently putting in the work at the B’s practice facility. It was one of Donato’s goals to get in the best position to win a spot on Boston’s roster out of camp and he’s most definitely done that with just three exhibition games left to go in the preseason.
“I trained hard this summer. I think they know my abilities and they know that I trained really hard this summer before coming in to compete for a job,” said Donato. “I’d be cutting myself short if I didn’t believe in my abilities to be a contender for any position on this team. So I want to work hard and hopefully I get to earn a spot.”
With a spot seemingly wrapped up for Donato, the question now becomes whether or not he can produce enough to cement his spot in the top-6, or play a good enough two-way game to be a third liner. If he can score goals and help make the second line a viable offensive force that would take care of one need that this Bruins team clearly had during their second round postseason series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Regular season games are the only proving ground to see whether Donato is a 20-30 goal-scorer or a guy like that Frank Vatrano that teased with flashes without ever actually truly developing at the NHL level. This humble hockey writer is betting more on the former than the latter for Teddy’s oldest boy, but time will tell on all of this for another Donato in Boston.