To say that every kid who has ever laced up a pair of skates dreams of playing in the National Hockey League would be the understatement of the century. On a similar scale, to also assume that kid can rise to that level of play without suffering pitfalls and obstacles along the way would be downplaying how difficult that journey is.
Matt Donovan is in his second stint with the New York Islanders this year and is proving that not only was there plenty to learn from his first go-around, but that he is a quick learner.
Donovan, 23, has made his hometown of Edmond, Oklahoma proud ever since he made the Isles out of training camp, which officially made him the first Oklahoman to be born, raised, and trained in the state to play in the NHL.
Breaking into junior hockey with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL, Donovan posted 31 goals and 81 points in 116 games over two seasons and was selected to the all-rookie team in his first year as his ascension from junior to pro began.
Moving onto the University of Denver, he continued to be an offensive force, notching 16 goals and 53 points in 78 games and was selected to the Inside College Hockey Freshman All-American team, All-College Hockey News Rookie Team, and All-WCHA Rookie Team.
After his sophomore season at UD, he was quickly signed to a contract by the Islanders and began playing with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League. Over his AHL career, Matt continued to post impressive offensive totals from the blueline. In 170 career games, his 28 goals and 111 points are testaments to Donovan’s skill.
What he quickly learned after making the big club this season out of training camp was that college and minor-league statistics do not matter much when you are thrust into a role playing against the best hockey players in the world. Top talents like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and even teammate John Tavares do not exist in their current state in the lower-level leagues, which is why the AHL-to-NHL transition is so difficult. (And gives credence to NHL scouts’ warnings that defensemen take longer to develop at hockey’s top level.)
When the Islanders coaching staff decided to return Matt to Bridgeport the day before Thanksgiving, many journalists and fans were left scratching their heads. Not much was said on the topic by the men who ultimately made the decision. Donovan was certainly making his share of mistakes but not any more so than the other five defensemen who dressed on a given night.
“[The coaches] told me they wanted me to go down and get my confidence back up. Obviously, it’s tough to make plays against the best players in the world. I think they wanted me to go make plays, get minutes on the power play and get my game back to where it should be,” is what Donovan told me when we spoke yesterday morning prior to the matinée against the Philadelphia Flyers.
It seems to have worked, as Donovan has played excellent hockey since being recalled on Jan. 2. He has been much more responsible in his own zone and is activating more than ever, getting involved in the play and joining the rush at every opportunity. That is something that head coach Jack Capuano has been looking for from his defense.
“Matt has tremendous skill and has worked real hard since coming back. We obviously want him to be responsible defensively and make the simple plays, but offense is a strong part of his pedigree and we need that from our back line,” Capuano mentioned yesterday.
Since the Islanders bench boss decided to reunite Donovan with Bridgeport partner Calvin de Haan, it has made a visible impact on Matt’s demeanor on the ice. Seemingly much more calm with the puck, the anxiety and pressure he seemed to be under during his first NHL stint are now gone.
“I played with Cal for 2 years and I know him really well. I know how he plays, he sees the ice so well. I notice how he moves his feet to get out of trouble. We communicate well and I think we have been playing real well together,” Donovan said.
A side of Donovan that we did not see early in the season was his physical play. That all changed against the Dallas Stars on the road, when he made a great stand-up check just inside the Islanders blue line on Ryan Garbutt. Even yesterday against the big and tough Philadelphia Flyers, he was very active in his own zone taking the body with authority when he had the chance.
“I think that is something that the coaches and I have talked about. It gets me into the game. Once I get a couple of hits in, everything kind of opens up,” Donovan said.
When I told Matt that his mother, Kathyrn, took credit for the training involved in his Garbutt hit, Donovan reacted in a way reminiscent of how I remembered him from our September meeting. The kid I remember talking to after the first day of rookie camp at Nassau Coliseum was calm, loose, and comfortable. It was clear that the confidence, swagger, and comfort level had returned.
Yesterday, Donovan and de Haan were perhaps the Islanders’ best defensive pairing. And over the last five games, with Lubomir Visnovsky still on the mend and Travis Hamonic now suffering from concussion-like symptoms, Donovan has seen his ice time go from 16 to 20 minutes a night due to time spent on the second power play unit.
There was one particular shift where the Islanders had the puck deep in the offensive zone for a good two to three minutes, cycling and forechecking the Flyers with the kind of pressure that yielded the two tying goals in the last ten minutes of the contest. Donovan and de Haan were the point men on that shift and made a number of key plays where they prevented the Flyers from clearing the zone.
Donovan stood out in particular, jumping in at every opportunity, at one point exchanging give-and-go passes with captain Tavares and firing a good low shot that Flyers goaltender Ray Emery must consider himself lucky to have deflected into the corner.
Plays like those are what fans and management hope to see for the rest of the season, as Matt Donovan builds himself a future with the Islanders as well as in the National Hockey League.
As long as expectations don’t get in the way of development, and people (social media) understand that a 23-year-old rookie defenseman won’t be perfect, we can enjoy the solid, steady play at both ends of the rink for a long time to come.