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Donato’s debut hints at potential playoff impact for Bruins (and four other NHL hopefuls to watch)

Jared Clinton
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Donato’s debut hints at potential playoff impact for Bruins (and four other NHL hopefuls to watch)

Ryan Donato Image by: Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

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Donato’s debut hints at potential playoff impact for Bruins (and four other NHL hopefuls to watch)

Jared Clinton
By:

Boston thrust Ryan Donato into a top-six role sooner than anyone would have expected, but the Harvard alum was excellent in his three-point NHL debut. He’s not the only late-season addition who could make noise down the stretch, however.

We can safely assume that the Boston Bruins’ plan was never to sign Ryan Donato and immediately thrust him into the spotlight, but circumstances dictated otherwise. With trade deadline acquisition Rick Nash sidelined with an upper-body injury — and who among the Bruins isn’t ailing lately? — Donato’s whirlwind week saw his time at Harvard come to an end, a contract signing with the Bruins and a spot in the NHL lineup as a top-six forward come Monday night.

So, if Donato would have struggled a bit, fumbled a few pucks here or there, it wouldn’t have been all too surprising. After all, there’s no way he could have been expected to be in this position so soon. Turns out, though, that Donato went out and had himself a game.

Despite it being Donato’s NHL debut, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy had no qualms about throwing the 21-year-old over the boards whenever he came up in the rotation. The good faith paid off, too. Early in the second period, with Boston trailing by one, Donato worked his way into the Columbus Blue Jackets zone on an odd-man rush and walloped a one-timer for his first NHL goal. About 10 minutes later, he picked up the primary assist on a Riley Nash power play goal after some good work in front of the net. Midway through the third, Donato put the capper on his three-point night with a slick short backhand feed to David Krejci. To top it off, Donato skated 19:40, the third-most among all Bruins forwards, and went to work on the top power play unit. Any way you slice it, it was an excellent first foray into the NHL.

It’s not as though Donato’s performance came out of nowhere, however. Selected by USA Hockey as one of the college kids worthy of pulling on a Team USA sweater at the Olympics in PyeongChang, Donato pieced together a memorable performance. His five goals were tied for the tournament lead, his six points topped the American squad and he finished tied for ninth in overall scoring despite Team USA’s early exit. And none of that is to mention Donato was coming off of a 26-goal, 43-point season — in 29 games, no less — with the Crimson.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that Donato is destined to continue on a three-point-per-game clip, nor does it even guarantee that he continues to play in Boston's top-six down the line. What it gives hope of, though, is that he can continue to be a contributor down the stretch and further bolster an already deep Bruins lineup in time for the post-season. We’ve seen in recent years a number of players come aboard late in the campaign, be it from the college ranks or otherwise, and make some noise in the playoffs. Just last spring it was Boston’s own Charlie McAvoy who turned heads despite the Bruins’ six-game defeat at the hands of the Ottawa Senators. And this time around, Donato’s not alone as a late-season addition who could have an impact come the playoffs.

Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville Predators
There may be no fan base watching the KHL playoffs as intently as the Predators faithful because Nashville can’t wait to get its hands on super sniper Tolvanen. The 18-year-old, who was selected 30th at the 2017 draft, tore up the KHL as a freshman this season with 19 goals and 36 points, both of which were record-setting marks for a player his age. In the post-season, Tolvanen has continued to blast his way into the dreams of Predators fans with five goals and six points in eight games for Jokerit, and it’s reached a point where Nashville fans are actively rooting for CSKA Moscow to take out Tolvanen’s Finnish side. (CSKA currently holds a 2-1 lead, for those wondering.) Oh, he also finished the Olympics with three goals and nine points in five games for Finland.

There’s a readymade spot for Tolvanen in the Predators’ lineup, too. He might not fit into the top-six, but he’s the perfect triggerman for either of Nashville’s power play units. Once he arrives, he’s going to get work with the man advantage and it wouldn’t be all too surprising to see him blast his way into the hearts of fans with a few heat-seeking one-timers.

Troy Terry, Anaheim Ducks
Donato wasn’t the only college kid who impressed at the Olympics. Right alongside him was Terry, who’s already a household name to those who pay attention to the World Junior Championship. His shootout heroics against Canada in the gold medal game of the 2017 tournament bordered on legendary, and Terry wowed on the biggest international stage with five assists in five games while playing a significant role for Team USA. The trip to PyeongChang hasn’t slowed down Terry’s season in any way, either, as he has only continued to build on that performance. This season with the defending NCAA champion Denver Pioneers, Terry has potted 13 goals and 44 points in 37 games.

The Ducks have the difficult task of earning themselves a playoff berth and then inking Terry, who could be eligible for free agency if he plays out his final season at Denver. Anaheim also isn’t done any favors by Denver’s chances of going deep in the Frozen Four tournament. That said, adding him to the lineup is a tantalizing proposition. If he was slotted on the wing in a depth role, he could bring the extra bit of scoring punch Anaheim needs to go from a low seed to a solid Western Conference contender.

Jordan Greenway, Minnesota Wild
Sensing a theme here? Greenway is yet another U.S. college standout who made his way to the Olympics for Team USA, though he was less impactful than his forward counterparts. In five games, Greenway found the scoresheet once — he scored against Slovenia — and racked up 10 penalty minutes. But there’s a reason Greenway is considered one of the Wild’s top prospects and he could be the perfect bottom-six addition to Minnesota come playoff time if for no other reason than his 6-foot-5, 238-pound frame gives him the type of big-league size that can cause some havoc.

There’s more to Greenway’s game than his frame, of course. While it may not have been on display at the Olympics, the 21-year-old has a boatload of offensive ability. After scoring 10 goals and 31 points last season for Boston University, Greenway has potted 12 goals and 33 points in 34 games for the Terriers this time around. Make no mistake, Minnesota could use the additional depth scoring, too. That’s especially true in a Central Division that is going to take an exceptional performance to escape.

Daniel Sprong, Pittsburgh Penguins
One of these things is not like the other. Sprong, unlike the rest of this list, has NHL experience and has gotten a taste of the NHL circuit in each of the past two campaigns. But a taste is about all he’s earned, playing in a grand total of 26 games while averaging little more than 10 minutes per outing. The Penguins have made a habit of reaching down into the AHL around playoff time, though, and Sprong could be the perfect pick to become the sneaky scorer this time around, a role previously filled by Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary.

Admittedly, Sprong has his work cut out for him when it comes to cracking the lineup given Pittsburgh has been rather hot of late and the top-nine is absolutely stacked. That said, a knock there or a bump here at an inopportune time could open up a spot for Sprong, who has paced the Penguins’ AHL club with 22 goals and 47 points in 51 games. And if Pittsburgh wants to inject more speed into their lineup, Sprong can provide that, too.

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Donato’s debut hints at potential playoff impact for Bruins (and four other NHL hopefuls to watch)