The Wild’s top six was at maximum capacity at the start of the season. That gridlock among the team’s top forwards pushed Ryan Donato to the fourth line, even though he held a more elevated role upon his arrival from Boston in February.
But a lower-body injury to captain Mikko Koivu busted the logjam, and Donato was promoted Tuesday to work between wingers Zach Parise and Kevin Fiala. He responded by scoring the game-tying goal in an eventual 3-2 shootout loss to the Ducks, and the significance of this latest opportunity only grew that night.
With center Eric Staal’s status uncertain after he left the action injured, the Wild’s depth could be further tested when it resumes a three-game homestand Thursday against Edmonton — a challenge Donato can help the Wild overcome if he continues to settle into his new spot in the lineup.
“He’s been playing fine,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He was the most dangerous guy we had in overtime. He’s taken advantage.”
When he debuted with the Wild late last season after a trade from the Bruins that sent forward Charlie Coyle the other way, Donato was a regular in the top nine and produced as such.
He contributed at nearly a point-per-game pace, finishing with 16 in 22 games amid a shoot-first style that looked like a welcome addition to the Wild’s forward group.
At training camp in September, the Wild did experiment with Donato at center in the upper half of its lineup, but the 23-year-old was ultimately assigned a support role.
“He’s handled it really well,” Boudreau said. “We’ve asked more of him, more of a 200-foot game rather than just an offensive game. So, when he was playing six minutes a night and he was starting to do the right things, then all of a sudden you can get a little more faith in that individual and you start to play him more.
“And when somebody goes down like Mikko and he gets the opportunity to get in, he’s got five goals now. There’s a lot of guys who play a lot more minutes that don’t have that at this stage.”
Despite scoring his fifth goal Tuesday, which is his fourth over the past seven games, Donato wasn’t pleased with his play against Anaheim.
“It was nice to get that goal,” he said, “but I think we all could have done a lot better.”
No doubt he recognizes the chance that’s in front of him and the need to capitalize, especially since Donato acknowledged it’s been tough waiting for it.
“I just gotta stay positive always,” Donato said. “I know I can be a guy that creates given the opportunity, and I think I’m showing that. Again, I wasn’t happy with the way I played [Tuesday] especially, but I do think that there’s something to build off for sure.”
That kind of stability would serve the Wild well right now, particularly if Staal remains out; the veteran left Tuesday’s game in the first period after colliding with a linesman, hitting his head and left shoulder, as he chased the puck up the boards. Boudreau didn’t have an update on Staal’s condition after the game, and the team didn’t practice Wednesday.
“It reminded me very much of [my] first year in the playoffs when he went in and knocked him out of the series against St. Louis,” said Boudreau, referring to the concussion Staal suffered when he crashed headfirst into the boards during Game 5 of the team’s first-round series.
Nico Sturm, another center, was recalled last week before getting reassigned to the American Hockey League on Monday. Although he was sent back to Iowa to play Tuesday, Sturm wasn’t in the lineup after tweaking something so he might not be an immediate option; the team did, however, recall winger Gerald Mayhew from the AHL on Wednesday, a move that suggests surviving this adversity is likely to require a patchwork effort like the one Donato has started.
“It’s definitely tough, but we’ve got a lot of guys that are going to step up,” Donato said. “I’m confident in that.”