Boston Bruins

By Ty Anderson,

If the Boston Bruins do not do anything of significance between now and the start of training camp — which appears to be their most probable play right now given the woeful free agent market and their limited trade options — first-year full-time NHLer Ryan Donato is going to need thicker shoulder pads to properly handle the pressure the team is about to dump on him.

That’s because such inactivity makes Donato the centerpiece of Boston’s attempt at bolstering their forward corps.

Up front, the Bruins lost Riley Nash and Tim Schaller from their bottom six this summer, trade deadline addition Rick Nash remains uncertain about his future, and even NHL tweener fallback option Austin Czarnik bolted for the Flames. The Bruins replaced those players with Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner. Now, Nordstrom and Wagner can maybe prove to be capable fourth-line replacement talents. Expecting them to provide a similar impact to Riley Nash on the third line or Rick Nash on the second line, however, is the stuff of nightmares I already bit on when the ’05 Bruins traded for Brad Isbister.

This aligns Donato, who contributed five goals and nine points in 12 games after he was signed away from Harvard late last season, as the Best Player Available if the Black and Gold are serious about a potential sequel to their 112-point 2017-18 year.

With those five goals and nine points in 12 games, Donato proved that he could more than hack it in Boston. I mean, only Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak had more points among Boston skaters over that span. Donato’s nine points beginning Mar. 19 also put him in the Top 50 among all NHLers, and those totals also meant Donato had direct involvement in nine of Boston’s 33 goals scored after he joined the team, giving him a 27 percent involvement in their scoring.

It essentially proved that Donato can be an adequate Rick Nash replacement. Especially on the man advantage, too.

In 17:24 of time on ice with Donato riding with Boston’s top power-play unit, the Bruins outshot opponents 24-2, generated 23 scoring chances, and outscored their opponents 6-0. Donato was more than a mere spectator to that unit’s wizardry, too, as he scored two power-play goals (on nine shots) and totaled four power-play points over that 12-game run. For comparison’s sake, the Bruins’ top unit outshot opponents 26-5, generated 23 scoring chances, and outscored teams just 4-1 in 17:22 with Nash in that spot on that top unit. (In defense of Nash, that came with David Backes skating in Bergeron’s spot as the bumper.)

And among rookies with at least 10 games played (this eliminates rookies that were late-season call-ups that recorded an assist in one game or something equally worthless), Donato ranked fifth in points per game, at 0.75 per night. Only the Lightning’s Yanni Gourde, Arizona forward Clayton Keller, Vancouver’s Brock Boeser, and the Islanders’ Matt Barzal were better. Three of those rookies were Calder finalists, while Gourde finished sixth and was a critical piece of last year’s Tampa Bay squad.

That’s some great company, and only further drives home the point that the Bruins have something real, real good in No. 17.

Ryan Donato celebrates his first NHL goal for the Boston Bruins against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the TD Garden on March 19, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Ryan Donato celebrates his first NHL goal for the Boston Bruins against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the TD Garden on March 19, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Trying to figure out exactly where Donato fits, however, is a damn mess.

While the numbers have told you that Donato is a capable of filling in for Nash on the power play, his even-strength fit with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci was a different story. In over 69 minutes of even-strength time on ice together, the DeBrusk-Krejci-Nash trio outshot opponents 45-30, generated 22 high-danger scoring chances while surrendering just 11, outscored opponents 3-1, and controlled possession at over 57 percent. In 31 minutes with Donato to Krejci’s right, the Bruins were outshot 24-17, generated 19 scoring chances (but also allowed 15 the other way), controlled possession at just under 50 percent. The only real advantage for DeBrusk-Krejci-Donato came with goals scored, as they had four when on the ice together.

And for what it’s worth, the Bruins do not seem to consider Donato to be an optimal fit on the right side. If they’re looking for a potential long-term fit on the right side, you can’t help but feel as if Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy is more likely to move Danton Heinen or Anders Bjork — two players with significantly more NHL experience on the right side — there before Donato.

Even so, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney expects the Bruins to give Donato a chance on the right side in training camp.

But how much time can the Bruins really spend messing around with the right side of their second line in training camp?

Keep in mind that you’re talking about a camp that will be truly split with one team in Boston and another in China to begin the preseason, and with the B’s in obvious need of having two legitimate powerful forward lines to begin the season. After all, this truly feels like a team that has two completely incomplete lines, so figuring out the solution for at least one of them should be of the utmost importance in a ramped-up Atlantic Division. So, to answer the original question: Not much.

Given the unknown competition at the third line pivot spot — the B’s are really banking on Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Trent Frederic, or Jack Studnicka stealing a job out of camp — Donato’s best fit could actually be at third-line center. A winner in 12 of his 16 faceoffs last season, Donato played with Heinen (and without Krejci) for over 15 minutes last year. The Bruins controlled possession at 71 percent and outshot teams 9-to-4 over that limited sample. Donato also played 12 even-strength minutes with David Backes, too, with a possession mark close to 60 percent, and a 6-3 chance advantage favoring the Bruins. Considering the fact that Heinen and Backes were most frequently utilized as third-line wings for Nash last season, sliding Donato into that spot and simply living (and learning) with his defensive-game deficiencies could perhaps be the Bruins’ best play.

It would also allow Donato to be a Carl Soderberg-esque presence on Line Three for next year’s squad, where he can thrive against weaker defensive pairings on Garden ice, and hopefully break even when on the road. Putting him with Backes and the defensively-underrated Heinen could allow that to be the case, too, especially with Backes’ ability to take faceoffs (he was Boston’s second-best d-zone faceoff option last year, as he won faceoffs at an over 51 percent clip). The counter to that move, however, is that it would take a highly-effective weapon out of the Bruins’ top six, which may not be in everyone’s best interest.

But no matter the role — whether it’s as the club’s top-six (unnatural) right wing or as a third-line center after just 12 NHL games — it’s becoming clearer by the day that there’s going to be a ton of pressure coming Donato’s stick this fall.

Ty Anderson is a digital producer for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Yell at him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.