McLaughlin: Bruce Cassidy should free Ryan Donato for Game 7

Scott McLaughlin
April 24, 2018 - 4:54 pm

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

Based on the Bruins’ lines at Tuesday’s practice, it doesn’t look like Ryan Donato will be in the lineup for Wednesday’s Game 7 at TD Garden. It appears the only change will be Danton Heinen going in and Tommy Wingels taking a seat.

Here’s hoping Bruce Cassidy reconsiders. Rolling with the forwards who got you here is a logical, safe decision that no one can really rip too much, but Donato presents an option that could give the Bruins’ suddenly quiet offense a much-needed boost.

Yes, Donato looked a little bit overwhelmed in his own zone in Game 2, the only game in this series that he’s played. And yes, throwing him into a Game 7 would be a bold move that would put him under the brightest lights possible.

But the Bruins need finishers, and there are reasons to think Game 7 could be different than Game 2. The Bruins have struggled in two key areas in their three losses this series. They’ve created a lot of chances, but they haven’t been able to finish them. And they’ve given up too many odd-man rushes and grade-A chances at the other end of the ice.

Let’s start with the area where Donato doesn’t help: giving up quality chances. But does Heinen really help you much in that regard either? He’s a solid defensive player for sure, but the Bruins’ problems haven’t really been with forwards losing guys in coverage. 

It’s been more about defensemen not doing a good enough job taking away stretch passes and letting the Leafs’ speedy forwards get behind them. That’s something the Bruins’ blue-liners need to tighten up. Sure, the forwards can help through the forecheck and puck management on dump-ins, but ultimately it’s the d-men who need to make sure they’re keeping Toronto’s forwards in front of them when they fly the zone.

If the big issue defensively was that the Bruins were getting pinned in deep and watching as the Leafs cycle around the offensive zone, then there would be a great case for defensively sound forwards like Heinen and Wingels playing over Donato. And not that the Leafs haven’t been able to cycle at all, but that hasn’t been what’s led to their best chances, with maybe a couple exceptions.

So now let’s look at what Donato can do at the other end. He can shoot, and he can score. The Bruins have been shooting, but not scoring. Admittedly, we have a pretty small sample of Donato at the NHL level, but it’s a promising sample. In 12 regular-season games, he had 24 shots on goal, five goals and four assists. Even in Game 2, a game in which he spent a lot of time in his own zone and didn’t look too comfortable, he still had three shots on goal (although one was from the neutral zone, to be fair).

And here’s how you could get better results from him in Game 7: Put him in more favorable situations. In Game 2, he played on a makeshift third line with Noel Acciari and David Backes that started more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone. It was a line that had little familiarity with each other, and one that had a more offensive guy in Donato stuck next to two guys who generally get more defensive assignments.

Put Donato on a more offensive line and give him more shifts in the offensive zone. Move him into the spot where Cassidy had Wingels in Game 5, on the right wing next to David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. With home ice, Cassidy can then be selective about how he deploys that line and give them a bunch of offensive-zone draws. 

Now, it has to be noted that Cassidy said Tuesday that Donato is “right now in our estimation, probably strictly a left-winger.” So, the chances of actually seeing him in the second-line right wing spot Wednesday night seem slim. But again, here’s hoping Cassidy reconsiders. Donato has played the off wing in the past, so it’s not entirely clear why that option would be ruled out.

If Donato was put there, it would mean Rick Nash would stay on the third line on the wing opposite David Backes, with either Riley Nash or Sean Kuraly at center (Riley Nash is generally in that spot, but Cassidy swapped him and Kuraly midway through Game 6 and could potentially stick with that). 

The upside there would be that Rick Nash brings some offense to that line (yes, he hasn’t done enough scoring in this series, but man has he had chances) and is also a good enough defensive player to handle some of the assignments Donato struggled with in Game 2.

Heinen would likely be the odd man out again given that the Bruins’ fourth line has been pretty good in this series and probably shouldn’t be touched. That would be a tough break for a guy who was fifth on the team in points in the regular season, but he just goes quiet too often to be guaranteed a lineup spot at this point.

In five games in this series, Heinen has zero points and just four shots on goal. He’s looked too much like the guy who had just one goal in a 22-game stretch spanning most of February and March. He did finish pretty strong in the last week of the regular season, but his play in this series has pretty much erased those positive feelings.

Sure, Heinen is probably less likely to make a costly mistake than Donato. But Donato seems more likely to help the offense crack Frederik Andersen at this point -- and he could also help a power play that is just 1-for-9 over the last four games after a hot start to the series. Putting him in is the kind of move that could make just enough of a difference in such a close series.

This isn’t the time to get conservative. Neither was Game 6 when Cassidy tried Wingels. Be aggressive, Bruce. Free Donato.