Anderson: What we've (already) learned about Ryan Donato

Ty Anderson
March 20, 2018 - 6:52 pm

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

Heading into Monday’s NHL debut against the Blue Jackets, here’s what we knew about Ryan Donato: He’s the son of former Bruin Ted Donato, and was playing under his father at Harvard University. We knew that he was a standout scorer at both the NCAA and Olympic levels this year, with 26 goals in 29 games for Harvard and five goals in six games for Team USA at the 2018 Olympic tournament in Pyeongchang. And we knew that he was waiting for an NHL opportunity to turn pro and join the organization.

The 21-year-old got just that in an over 19-minute night spent on David Krejci’s left, and had TD Garden buzzing after a one-goal, three-point debut that successfully overshadowed a 5-4 overtime loss that saw the Black and Gold blow a two-goal lead.

In Boston -- and especially when talking about the B’s, a fanbase once driven by misery -- turning an obvious negative into a positive this time of year takes something else.

And that’s exactly what we’re learning that Donato can be for this organization.

Admittedly unable to catch a lot of ECAC action and with Donato having never played in a preseason game (dumb NCAA rules are dumb), I mainly knew what the statistics had told me about the Scituate native. And those stats confirmed that he loved to shoot the puck; he shot an absolute ton for Harvard, averaging nearly a full shot more per game (6.03 shots per game) than the second-highest shooter in all of college hockey.

That translated to the NHL, too, as Donato fired four shots on net in less than six minutes of ice time in his first NHL period, and finished with six shots. Of all varieties, too. You learned that he’s surprisingly good from in tight and in front of the net (we saw that on the power play), that he can come through with a quick-yet-deadly release on one-timers (we saw this in his first NHL goal), and saw that he can wind up and come through with a heavy wrister (Don Sweeney noted that as one of his father's best traits as an NHLer).

And with such a diverse arsenal of offensive weapons at his disposal, Donato appears rightfully comfortable shooting his shot from just about anywhere on the ice.

“You know, he’s on the puck, as advertised, in terms of his compete,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said of Donato’s debut. “[He] wanted to shoot the puck. I think early he was trying to make some plays and then realized, just play to your strength.”

The Bruins also learned that Donato is a battler. While a gritty team like the Blue Jackets could have presented some problems for Donato -- especially when it comes to going through their rugged blue line -- Donato embraced the challenge of physicality and keeping plays alive from between the circles and around the net. Years of getting the holy hell hacked out of him as Dexter's top talent (Dexter head coach Danny Donato, Ryan's uncle, once told me how often Ryan had to battle through non-calls during his time there) and facing every team's best punch as Harvard's top threat undoubtedly helped build this mentality and drive towards the net. 

“He was playing well. He was battling along the walls, he was making some good plays,” Krejci, often tasked with riding with at least one first-year NHLer on his line for the majority of the season, said of Donato’s debut on Monday. “It was a good game for him. For a first NHL game, you can’t really ask for anything better than he did.”

After one game -- and this will be the only time that I’m stressing that this is just one game, because you, me and everybody from here to Harvard knows it’s only one game -- you could make the case that Donato’s already a more skilled and confident Frank Vatrano in the attacking zone. That alone makes him a worthwhile addition to the 2018 B's, no matter his role. 

But we also learned that the Bruins obviously look at Donato for more than his shot.

Cassidy’s obvious (and early) trust in Donato -- he put Donato right back out there after the Jackets took a 4-3 lead in the third period (Krejci tied it up off a feed from Donato on that shift) and an overtime shift in the wildly unpredictable three-on-three format -- confirmed that. And and we found out that this could pay off when it matters most. Which you could make the case as being nothing new at all, too. Like he has all season -- either by design or simply necessity -- Cassidy trusted an inexperienced talent to handle a premier role, and was rewarded for it.

This is what the Bruins were able to do with Charlie McAvoy in last year’s first-round series with the Senators and parlay it into a strong regular season, and what they were able to do with players such as Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk, and Danton Heinen to lesser degrees earlier this season.

“Consistency is a big issue for first-year guys, and we all understand that. If he can string it together, then we’ll make that comparison [to McAvoy], but yes, very impressed by that to be able to come in here [and produce],” Cassidy said. “Especially your hometown, could be some jitters there, might be easier to do it on the road, almost. I’m not sure – to each his own in that area, but there’s a lot of people to impress, and it’s a tough game, so good for him to be able to do it right here in his own backyard.”

While in an obviously different situation than McAvoy, who started out in Providence before circumstances forced him into an NHL role with the stakes at their absolute highest, Donato’s early performance opens the door for a greater role to be earned between now and Game 1. After all, these games do mean something, especially with the Bruins still very much fighting for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Meaning that Donato’s expanding role will feature even more learning. From all parties involved, too.

On the ice, behind the bench, from the general manager’s vantage point, and even in the classroom.

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