The case for Tommy Wingels over Ryan Donato

Sara Civian
April 23, 2018 - 3:08 pm

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

The Stanley Cup playoffs are in full swing, and with that comes the return of cryptic press conferences. When Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy announced he “may tinker with the lineup tonight” before Game 6 in Toronto, most signs pointed to removing Danton Heinen from the lineup. 

As strong a debut Heinen’s had with the Bruins -- 16 goals, 31 assists, and a plus-10 in 77 games -- he’s gone scoreless in five playoff games. 

Part of that is his two-way game, a reason Brad Marchand wrote “you need guys like Heino to win a Cup” in his Players’ Tribune piece earlier in the week. Still, he’s averaged less than one shot on goal (4) in the playoffs.

What matters about that isn’t the lack of shots, it’s that several of his chances just fell short of being huge moments, and that’ll frustrate a rookie in the playoffs. Cassidy has singled Heinen out as a player who has “earned the right” to play through rough patches, but this is Game 6 and the Bruins have a chance to close out the series on the road.

“We’ve got a lot of veterans in the room,” Cassidy said of his controversial decision to scratch Ryan Donato in Game 1. “They’ve been through this.”

The veterans got it done in Game 1, and Heinen’s frustrating performance thus far is mostly a result postseason inexperience, something Cassidy said Sunday: 

“This time of year, you need a little more oomph.”

I get the Ryan Donato hype, and I think it’s justified. He put the country on his back as Team USA’s scoring leader Olympics. Then he strutted into the Bruins’ regular season lineup without even getting a practice in, and he looked like a grizzled veteran of the NHL with a three-point debut. Then he probably submitted a Harvard essay before 11:59 p.m. 

He rules.

But his postseason debut in Game 2 might be a case study for the difference in regular season hockey and playoff hockey. To be fair, Donato had a team low 9:24 TOI in the Bruins’ 7-3 win, but it only resulted in three shots and a minor defensive lapse. That’s still more production than Heinen, and inserting Donato probably wouldn’t be a disaster, but the third line shouldn't be measured in production.

Can we think about plans for a second? The Bruins’ plan for Donato is a careful path of development into a long, prolific career. Don Sweeney acquired Tommy Wingels at the trade deadline for depth to win a Stanley Cup. This year. Right now.

Wingels has played 56 playoff games in his six seasons. His average TOI has been 11:35, and with two goals and six assists to show for it, it’s obvious his role has never been scoring big points. If this series has been any indication, the Bruins’ first line needs to do that anyways, and the second line is due for a big game. 

Why have Heinen try to do all that and get frustrated for the sixth game in a row when Wingels, a known responsible grinder, exists?

Wingels exists as a non-liability who can keep Toronto off the board and sometimes shift momentum, with 74 shots and a plus-four through 56 playoff games. It makes sense to put him on the Bruins’ grinders on the third line. The depth acquisitions weren’t just for injuries, and this is a perfect opportunity to give a rookie, who at times has looked like he’s trying a bit too hard to make the big plays, a game in the press box  

If Cassidy does swap Donato in for Heinen, it’ll send a message he’s looking for offensive production in a place he never really has. I still don’t think who’s in on the third line matters much if the first and second lines can’t step up. Maybe Donato will enter the lineup and make it all look as easy as he did in his regular season debut.

And hey, maybe Cassidy will do absolutely nothing.

There are tons of possibilities here. Just don’t forget about the plan.

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