Ryan Donato making a case for more ice time

This season, there is perhaps no NHL city with more opportunity available than Seattle. A brand new expansion team with no established lines or roster heading into the year, every player coming to the Kraken had a chance to showcase their talents and earn top-line ice time. Now, with leading scorers Jordan Eberle and Jaden Schwartz sidelined with injuries, there’s an even bigger opportunity for an overlooked player to show their mettle. This past week, that player was Ryan Donato.

Donato was a 2nd-round draft pick by the Boston Bruins in 2014 who first cracked the NHL lineup in 2017. He was traded to Minnesota in 2019 then traded again to San Jose in 2020, where he was allowed to leave in free agency after the season. He was a late addition to the Kraken, signing in mid-September ahead of training camp.

In two games without Schwartz and Eberle, Donato got a chance to go from the 4th line to playing on the wing of Yanni Gourde — the man with more points than any non-injured Kraken. And the results this far have been great.

In the first game featuring this new line of Donato, Gourde, and Joonas Donskoi, Donato netted 2 goals — both at even strength. Over the course of his career, he’s averaged a little over 12 minutes of ice time per game, most of it at even strength with a few minutes on the second power play unit as well. It hasn’t been much different so far in Seattle until recently. In these last two games, Donato has played a combined 29 minutes — a noticeable, if not massive uptick.

This new forward line (I hesitate to number the lines 1-4, as they seem to change which is which each night) has been responsible for 3 of the Kraken’s 6 goals at 5-on-5 these past two games. They were actually outshot the first night in Detroit, but the chances they allowed were far less dangerous than the chances they earned themselves. With these three on the ice, Seattle controlled 56.4% of the expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick. The performance was good enough to earn them the starting nod in the following game against the high-powered Edmonton Oilers, and they immediately took advantage of the opportunity.

The beautiful pass from Donato to Gourde (and don’t sleep on Donskoi skating hard to pull the defense away) was actually the opposite of how this line’s offense usually works. Gourde is the Kraken’s primary set-up man, while Donato is more shot-happy than anyone on the team. He’s had a shoot-first mentality throughout his career, but never the ice time to generate more than 14 goals in a season. This could be the year that changes. Gourde, on the other hand, not only likes to find a good pass to make first, he actually succeeds in making said pass more often than not.

The two of them together has had quite an impact on their shot generation. Seattle’s shot attempts with Donato on the ice have gone from around 50 per 60 minutes to 57.5 per 60 minutes in these past two games. There’s a small sample size caveat to be had here, of course, but their two styles do make it seem likely that this would be the case going forward if the line remains together.

Using hand-tracked data from Corey Sznajder along with data from Natural Stat Trick, we can see the symbiotic relationship of Gourde and Donato on the ice together. Here’s the Kraken forwards’ shot attempt rates along with their primary shot assist rates — that’s a pass that leads to a shot for the player receiving the pass.

Donato is far and away the most shot-happy forward in Seattle. That’s something the team really needs, especially early in the year. Anyone watching the games has surely cried out at least a few times for the team to stop trying to make the perfect pass and simply put the puck on net. (I’d make a comment about Alex Wennberg doing this constantly, but the last time he did it he accidentally scored so we’ll give him a short reprieve for now.) As the man Wayne Gretzky once said, 100% of the shots you don’t take, don’t go in. Jared McCann has been the man leading the way in that regard on the power play, and it’s led to a team-high 5 man-advantage goals. At 5-on-5 thought, it’s Ryan Donato. If the Kraken want to generate more offense, getting him on the ice more is a great way to do it.

Through 24 games, Seattle is still searching for the right line combinations. So far only two combos have played more than 50 minutes together at 5-on-5 — Schwartz/Wennberg/Eberle and Gourde/Tanev/Calle Järnkrok. It was always going to take some time to find those lines that work well together, and through some bad injury luck, head coach Dave Hakstol may have just stumbled upon one that makes sense. Moving Ryan Donato up in the lineup to play with Yanni Gourde has brought more offense to this team. Let’s see if they can keep it up.