When the Bruins entered the season having filled the gaps left by wingers Rick Nash and Tim Schaller with only Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom, fans were left to make an assumption: The Kids Will Step Up.
It’s not an unreasonable assumption given how odd the year previous was in terms of injury luck, and in terms of how nearly every youngster who took a spot succeeded, but this year has been pretty different in the early goings. Wagner has looked like the classic rough-and-tumble fourth liner he was signed to be. Nordstrom has been a pleasant surprise, playing pretty well in several roles up and down the lineup. The kids? Well…
Anders Bjork--trying to reestablish himself as a viable pro after his rookie season went off the rails due to injury--has just two points through nine games played and an expected goals percentage (xGF%) of 42.63, third worst on the team.
The dubious distinction of last place in that category, and so many others...is Ryan Donato. His xGF% is a lowly 30.58%, a mark 7% less than any other player on the team (David Backes) and a ludicrous 26.38% lower than the team average.
If you’re unfamiliar with xGF%, it uses shot rates and shot quality metrics to approximate the number of goals a player should rightly be on the ice for versus against. With the way Donato has played, he should surrender twice the goals he creates by being on the ice.
This is just one way of looking at Donato’s performance, but to say his body of work has been poor is an understatement. He has just one point in ten games. He isn’t helping to generate scoring chances and isn’t having an impact on the power play. His average ice time has been cut down to 12:06 per game. Perhaps the only highlight is that he’s drawn three penalties and taken one.
And then there’s the good ol’ eye test. Donato just looks lost, constantly losing puck battles, being overeager and drawing his own team offsides, and making poor decisions. His shot can be deadly, but he’s been completely unable to get himself into positions to use it. He just looks overwhelmed on nearly every shift.
In short, Ryan Donato needs to take a break.
Some struggling players are best served by an extended stay on Level 9, but that doesn’t feel like the right move here. Donato isn’t just struggling to produce or stuck in a slump (that’s more like what Bjork is going through), he’s being run over. The best thing for his development is some time in the AHL.
Admittedly, time in Providence seems counter-intuitive for a player like Donato; who took so long developing his game at Harvard, then looked totally NHL ready when he got into the Bruins lineup late last year. At 22 years old, most highly touted prospects are locked into NHL lineups, provided their development has gone well, which Donato’s certainly has. So what’s to gain from a demotion?
For one, it would put a stop to the trainwreck that has been Donato’s start to the year. There’s a case to be made for letting him fight through it, but there’s nothing to suggest he’s going to simply snap out of it while playing in the NHL. It’s a chance for him to hit the reset button on his 2018-19 season.
More tangibly, the AHL is an environment where a player with Donato’s skill can find the space to make plays and impact the game. He can play bigger minutes and get back to dominating, instead of overthinking and just trying to stay afloat. With any luck, he can score some goals, be the best player on the ice, and be back in the NHL with a refreshed state of mind in just a few weeks.
As for who replaces Donato in the Bruins lineup, virtually anybody would be able to replace or improve on his output. Coby Cave and Cameron Hughes are off to hot starts in Providence. Peter Cehlarik would be a natural choice were he not injured again. Even the newly acquired Jan Kovar could be worth a look.
Whatever lineup decisions result from the move, it has to made. Less for the good of the team right now, more for the development of a promising player.
All stats credit to Corsica