Late in the regular season, two strong teams seemingly got better when the Boston Bruins lured Ryan Donato from Harvard while Eeli Tolvanen came over from the KHL to join the Nashville Predators.
Fans of both teams waited with baited breath to see them join their squads, yet right now, it seems like they’re struggling to gain traction during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let’s take a look at each situation.
[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]
Donato lost in the shuffle
The Boston Bruins have seen their 3-1 first-round series lead evaporate into a 3-3 tie against the Toronto Maple Leafs. NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty notes frustration for the dominant top line of David Pastrnak – Patrice Bergeron – Brad Marchand and is calling for more production from Rick Nash.
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy’s done plenty of “tinkering” lately, yet if the most recent lines are any indication, Donato is still losing that game of musical chairs.
Whether it’s Tommy Wingels or Danton Heinen, the Bruins have mixed different forwards in, but Donato’s been absent most of the time, even when Bergeron was a surprise scratch. At this point, it’s fair to be confused, especially when you consider that Boston has enjoyed so much success by handing young players the car keys rather than distrusting them like many other teams do. It’s quite baffling for a Bruins team that currently looks a bit too dependent upon a few players to beat red-hot Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen.
Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones discussed the merits of choosing Donato over the likes of Wingels:
Through six games in this series, the Bruins dressed Donato once: in Game 2. He didn’t get much of a chance, receiving just 9:24 of ice time.
Now, it’s fine that they did as much there, as the Bruins dominated their way to a 7-3 win. Still, it doesn’t exactly give Donato much of an opportunity to prove himself, either.
The 22-year-old’s generally been running with his real opportunities so far in the NHL, too. Donato did so most dramatically in his NHL debut on March 19, scoring a goal and two assists against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was a heck of a statement for someone who was still worrying about grades.
His NHL career amounts to a small sample right now, but Donato made a compelling argument that he could help the Bruins with supplemental scoring. Through 12 regular-season games, Donato collected five goals and four assists for nine points. He never went more than two contests without generating a goal or an assist.
While Donato received the cushy zone starts you’d expect from a fresh face, he did his part by generating nice possession stats.
Sure, the jury’s out on whether he can be a consistent point producer at the NHL level … but it’s also bewildering that the Bruins wouldn’t look to him for a possible scoring boost.
If nothing else, Donato could make sense in a role as an offensive specialist, ideally adding some creativity to a power play that needs it. After scoring five power-play goals through the first two games in this series, the Bruins have only connected once in the past four contests, going 1-for-9. Some of that might be a matter of referees rarely reaching for their whistles (they only received three power-play opportunities in the series’ three games in Toronto, really emphasizing home-ice advantage?), but Donato could give them as shot in the arm.
Not doing so could lead to a lot of soul-searching if the Bruins fall in Game 7. Even if they advance, they really need to think long and hard about giving Donato more reps.
Tolvanen not yet fitting in
The Donato situation in Boston is more confounding because he’s shown that he can produce at the NHL level, and he’s also been thrust into prominent scenarios thanks to the Bruins’ wave of injuries.
Despite riding a wave of hype to North America, Eeli Tolvanen remains stuck in a holding pattern with the Nashville Predators.
Tolvanen failed to crack the Predators’ lineup during their six-game series against the Colorado Avalanche, even with Ryan Hartman receiving a one-game suspension. Much like Boston, Nashville saw its power play dry up after a hot start; the Predators went 0-for-9 during the last three games of that series. You’d think such relative struggles might have opened the door for Tolvanen to get a look, but that didn’t happen.
To be fair, Tolvanen hasn’t shown a ton so far with Nashville.
He only suited up for three games, failing to score a goal or an assist. It’s not as if this is a matter of bad bounces alone, as Tolvanen only managed three shots on goal, with all three SOG coming in his third appearance.
While Donato’s likely further along in his development at 22, Tolvanen is just 19 and isn’t that far removed from being drafted (30th overall in 2017). There’s a solid chance that Tolvanen simply is not ready.
That said, the Predators are readying for what could be an epic second-round series against the Winnipeg Jets. If they want to win, they’ll likely need to play some of their best hockey, so they’d be foolish not to at least consider putting Tolvanen back in the lineup.
The Bruins organization has seen firsthand how a talented rookie can revitalize a series, as Tyler Seguin memorably gave them a big surge after being a healthy scratch during Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup run.
Considering the championship aspirations of both teams, they’d be wise not to dismiss their intriguing rookies.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.