“While Donovan’s play is impressive, his character is even more so. It’s nearly impossible to find a professional athlete more humble and respectful than he is”
While the Isles’ season hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, there have been bright spots along the way. The emergence of rookie Matt Donovan as a solid two-way defenseman, with a flare for creating and jumping into the offense, has been one of those bright spots.
Donovan’s path to the NHL hasn’t strayed out of the United States. He was born and raised in Edmond, Oklahoma, and played junior hockey for Cedar Rapids of the USHL. Following that, he spent two years at the University of Denver before getting drafted by the Islanders in the 4th round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
He joined the Bridgeport Sound Tigers after his 2010-11 college season ended and quickly began making a name for himself as a young pro. In 147 games over two full seasons with the Sound Tigers, he put up an impressive 93 points and was plus 25.
When the Islanders traded Mark Streit’s negotiating rights to the Flyers last summer, Donovan was penciled in to replace the former Isles Captain and best offensive defenseman.
Donovan showed flashes early in the year, but seemed overwhelmed at times and made some costly mistakes. After a particularly rough game on Thanksgiving eve against Winnipeg, Donovan was sent back down to Bridgeport.
“They sent me down to get my confidence,” he said. “I was gripping the stick too hard, trying to keep a spot and not make too many mistakes. I wasn’t playing my game. I wasn’t trying to jump into the offense and create like I should.”
If his confidence was down while he was in Bridgeport, he hid it well. In 17 games with the Sound Tigers, he produced 14 points and fired 47 shots on goal. Clearly, he was back to playing his game. When Travis Hamonic suffered a concussion while Lubomir Visnovsky was still out recovering from his own concussion, Donovan was called back up to the Islanders.
Once he returned to the Isles after the stint in Bridgeport, he looked like a different player. “It’s been night and day for him,” Isles Coach Jack Capuano said. “He’s starting to play with a lot more confidence and poise. He’s setting up good chances, he’s activating, he’s playing well, and he’s taking advantage of his ice time.”
Two days before the Stadium Series game against the Rangers, Visnovsky came off the injured reserve. It appeared Hamonic was set to return as well. With nine healthy defensemen, someone had to go. Because Donovan is on a two-way contract and can be sent back and forth without being exposed to reentry waivers, he found himself on his way back to Connecticut and the AHL.
Still, he knew this was different from being sent down in November. This time, it had nothing to do with his play. “When I got sent down I had a good meeting with Cappy and Snowy and it was all positive. They said it was more of a numbers thing this time around.
“It’s just one of those things where I’m the guy that has to get sent down… They didn’t say it was a demotion.”
The very next day, Hamonic unexpectedly woke up with concussion symptoms and was placed on the injured reserve list. Donovan barely even got to practice with Bridgeport before he was on his way back up to rejoin the Isles. He drove to Yankee Stadium for practice and was in the lineup the following night for the Stadium Series game.
The Isles lost that game, but Donovan was one of the best and most noticeable players on the ice. The same can be said about him for most of the games he’s played with the Isles since his return. He registered at least one shot on goal each game over his last ten games, with an average of almost 2.5 shots per game over the same span.
For the advanced stat crowd, his corsi has been over 50% in nine of his last ten games, which means that the Isles generated more shots than they gave up while he was on the ice. His relative corsi was positive in eight of those ten games, which indicates that he was also outplaying his teammates. In fact, Donovan now ranks second amongst the team’s defensemen in both those categories, behind Visnovsky.
The numbers make it clear how good Donovan has been since he returned to the Isles, and he’s certainly passed the eye test as well. His passes out of the zone have been crisp and accurate, with confidence and conviction behind them. After he makes those passes, he immediately takes a few hard strides and looks to join the offense.
He’s reading the play well, finding open ice, taking the space that’s given him, and getting involved at every opportunity. He isn’t getting caught out of position, he isn’t putting the team in bad spots, and he’s standing up opponents near the defensive blue line instead of backing into the zone. Along with his confidence, his physical play has picked up as well.
Perhaps having a steady, solid defensive partner has helped Donovan. Recently he’s been playing almost exclusively with Calvin de Haan, who also spent the last two years in Bridgeport. “I think our games connect well,” de Haan said. “He obviously worked hard to get back up here and he’s steadily improving his game every day.”
de Haan continued, “You can see it. We’re gelling on the ice, playing some solid defensive hockey, and you can see his confidence is back as well because he’s jumping up in the play and doing what he does best.”
Donovan’s currently back with Bridgeport, but this time it’s just so that he keeps playing games over the Olympic break instead of having a few weeks off the ice. And once again, he didn’t sulk when he got down there. He has five points in the four AHL games during the Olympic break, including two power play goals. He even fought Chris McKelvie of the Albany Devils in his first game of this stint, and did more than just hold his own.
While Donovan’s play is impressive, his character is even more so. It’s nearly impossible to find a professional athlete more humble and respectful than he is. His attitude couldn’t be better: He always has time for reporters and fans, and he always owns his mistakes when he makes them. After tough games he waits to speak to the media, never hiding or making excuses. He has the heart of a champion, and the mental and physical tools to be a great defenseman in the NHL for a very long time.