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Ryan Donato could technically become a free agent this year

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He's long been seen as a lock for the Bruins, but a CBA wrinkle casts some doubt.

Olympics: Ice Hockey-Men Team Quarterfinal - USA-CZE Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a busy week in the world of the Boston Bruins, with the acquisitions of Rick Nash, the signing of Brian Gionta and all that other stuff.

Lost in the shuffle was a little nugget of information from TSN’s Bob McKenzie last week, nestled in an intermission report on an NBC Sports broadcast: Ryan Donato could, technically, become an unrestricted free agent and sign with any NHL team this spring.

Before you go nuts, it’s worth nothing that McKenzie said Bruins fans shouldn’t panic, but it’s an interesting thing to float out there. Has he heard rumblings, or is he just stating the facts?

I made the mistake of being skeptical of a McKenize report, a dumb move considering the man is a walking hockey news factory. It didn’t seem right that Donato could just up and leave already; however, after looking into the CBA’s passage on college players, it turns out McKenzie is right (as usual).

College players declining to sign with the team that drafted them isn’t exactly a new thing. The difference, however, is that in most of these cases, the player finishes school as a graduating senior and then refuses to sign.

Guys like Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey and Will Butcher all went this route. They were all seniors.

Ryan Donato is a junior. So why can he leave? It all has to do with when he was drafted.

Let’s take a look at Section 8.6 C of the collective bargaining agreement:

If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19 is a bona fide college student at the time of his selection in the Entry Draft, or becomes a bona fide college student prior to the first June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft, and does not remain a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain exclusive rights for the negotiation of his services until the later of: (a) the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft, or (b) thirty (30) days after NHL Central Registry receives notice that the Player is no longer a bona fide college student;

Donato was 18 when he was drafted in the summer of 2014. However, he didn’t start attending Harvard until the fall of 2015. He played for the Omaha Lancers of the USHL in the 2014-2015 season.

Presumably, sometime in 2014 or 2015, Donato committed to Harvard. He would have registered for classes and been in their system as an accepted student sometime in 2014 or 2015.

This is important, because the NHL apparently considers a player to be a “bona fide college student” as soon as the player is in the school’s system as a registered student. Considering college acceptances and commitments happen every spring, this was probably in 2015.

If he were to bail this year, he’d be a junior, meaning he wouldn’t be remaining a bona fide student through the graduation of his class.

This means the Bruins retain Donato’s exclusive draft rights for four June 1st’s after he was drafted. Those four would be June 2015, June 2016, June 2017 and June 2018.

(Presumably, it’d be June 1st, because it’s the later of that date or the end of Harvard’s season. If Donato were to decide that he’s done whenever Harvard is done, he could leave school and notify the NHL immediately; however, 30 days out from that date would probably be sooner than June 1st.)

There’s another wrinkle, as that same section of the CBA continues:

provided that if the Player ceases to be a bona fide college student on or after January 1 of an academic year and the Player: (1) is in his fourth year of college and has commenced his fourth year of NCAA eligibility, or (2) is in his fourth year of college and is scheduled to graduate from college at the end of his fourth year, then in the circumstances described in (1) or (2), the Club shall retain the exclusive right of negotiation for such Player’s services through and including the August 15 following the date on which he ceases to be a bona fide college student. The Club need not make a Bona Fide Offer to such Player to retain such rights.

Donato would only be in his third year of college, so it seems like the August 15th date wouldn’t matter.

Whew. Get all that?

Now, the larger question: would this actually happen?

All signs point to “no” right now. The Bruins seem high on Donato. Donato seems to like the idea of playing for the Bruins. He’s a local kid, he went to Harvard, his father played for the Bruins, etc. All good things.

The only real potential issue is that the Bruins might not be able to give him the immediate playing time he wants. Remember, Donato just came off of a great Olympics playing against (relative) pros. He feels like he’s ready. He wants to play.

The Bruins, however, don’t have a ton of space on the NHL roster and may be hesitant to break up the lines they have going now. The team may have to make some kind of deal with him that they’ll sign him and burn a year off his ELC by getting him in a game, much like they did with Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson. This would allow Donato to get that next contact a year sooner.

In all likelihood, Donato will be a Bruin by April or May. However, it’s a little disconcerting to know that he could decide to go the Blake Wheeler route and leave for a better opportunity elsewhere.

Let’s hope his father has spent years telling him how great it is to sport the spoked-B...

Thanks to Dominic Tiano for helping me puzzle this whole thing out.