Bruins lack secondary scoring, won’t get it from Donato for now

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You can’t ask for a much bigger difference between Ryan Donato last season versus this one, so far. It says a lot about small sample sizes – both ways – and also how dangerous it can be to just assume that a 22-year-old will just develop on an upward trajectory.

  • In 2017-18, Donato impressed, scoring five goals and four assists for nine points in 12 games despite fairly modest ice time (14:42 TOI average).
  • So far in 2018-19, Donato managed a single point (one goal) in 11 games, receiving just 12:06 TOI per game. His possession stats have been ghastly, and his puck went from stellar last season (20.8 shooting percentage) to below average lately (8.3 percent this season).

Considering his offensive and defensive struggles, it’s not all that shocking that the Bruins sent Donato to the AHL on Thursday.

In hindsight, it makes sense that Donato would receive some extra seasoning in the AHL, actually.

Last season, the 56th pick of the 2014 NHL Draft went from strong work at Harvard straight to the NHL, taking off during his first reps with the Bruins.

Being such a quick study was a heartening sign for the B’s and their fans, yet Donato might have set the bar a little too high for himself. Going to the AHL could allow the talented scorer to gain some swagger back, as he’s almost certain to be a big fish in a small pond at that level.

This does bring a few questions to mind, though:

How long will this demotion last?

Again, there are positive elements to playing against less robust competition, but are the Bruins aiming for an extended stay? Is this instead something of a wake-up call?

As a 22-year-old, Donato has time … but not as much as, say, an 18-year-old or 19-year-old being sent down as to avoid burning a year off of a rookie contract.

Are the Bruins too top-heavy?

One could imagine a scenario where the Bruins would “spread the wealth” rather than consolidating power with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak on the same, monstrously dominant line.

That’s not to say such a strategy would be better than the status quo, but this could be a smart time to tinker. During stretches of last season, one or more of those forwards was out of commission, yet the Bruins kept humming along for the most part.

Theoretically, a player like Donato or Jake DeBrusk might be able to get by as a Bergeron or Marchand does their heavy lifting. It’s not outrageous to picture Donato fitting in with Bergeron like Conor Sheary did with Sidney Crosby (and seems to be with Jack Eichel). In a salary cap league, it can sometimes behoove a team to spread talent out.

The simple numbers argue that it’s a question the Bruins shouldn’t outright dismiss.

While that top line is as electric as ever – really, if you’re looking at play in all three zones, they still might be the best – the Bruins are getting much production from other trios. David Krejci is the only other Boston forward in the neighborhood of a point-per-game with nine in 12 contests; you have to reach down to DeBrusk at three points to find the fifth most-prolific forward.

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Again, the above considerations don’t necessarily paint a dire picture. After all, the Bruins are off to a solid 7-3-2 start, placing them predictably in third place in the Atlantic Division.

Still, we see time and time again that depth can make the difference during a deep playoff run.

Donato doesn’t have to be that guy who moves the needle for the Bruins, but Boston should at least keep the door open for him to give it another shot, ideally sometime soon.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.