Player: Ryder Donovan, Forward, Duluth East(MN) High School/Dubuque Fighting Saints(USHL)
Measurables: 6’3” 183 lbs., Right shot, 97th among NA Skaters on NHL Central Scouting Final List
2018-2019 stats: MN HS: 23 games, 12 goals, 25 assists, 37 points; USHL: 9 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, 1 point
Donovan burst onto the scene as a prospect-to-follow in the summer of 2017 with an impressive performance at USA Hockey’s Select 17 Festival. He drew the attention of multiple big college programs and made a commitment to play for North Dakota. With his combination of size and skill, he came into his draft year projected as high as an early second rounder by some analysts. But for all of his raw tools, a lack of offensive production after returning to high school hockey for his senior season, and not scoring in his limited time in the USHL has dampened the enthusiasm for Donovan’s pro prospects considerably in the past 12 months. Prior to the high school season, Donovan re-opened his recruitment, and this winter, pledged to play for the University of Wisconsin next year.
What I like:
-Super quick for his size
The biggest things that stands out about Donovan is his tremendous athleticism. For a bigger kid, he has great first step agility and can really fly down the ice when he gets moving. His skating ability is an elite-level skill that by itself, makes him a serious draft candidate.
-Soft hands, good passer
Donovan is an above-average passer that handles the puck really smoothly. Those passes didn’t always turn into goals during the high school season this year, but he is very effective at moving the puck to teammates in tight spaces. He sometimes becomes a little too tentative, opting to making a pass rather than trying to create an opportunity for himself. But he should have no trouble moving the puck around the ice at the next level.
What I don’t like:
-Low scoring totals
The first thing that is going to stick about Donovan is that he only scored 37 points in 23 high school games, and registered just two assists over 14 regular season/playoff games in the USHL. Frankly, it’s a testament to his physical abilities that he’s even being talked about as a draft prospect with those numbers.
There is a little bit of context that doesn’t make those numbers look so bad. Duluth East plays a tougher than average schedule for a high school team. He didn’t have the same pick-how-many-points-you-want opportunities that some other high schoolers get. Duluth East also plays a much more structured, defense-first style of play that tends to keep their games more low-scoring. And while he was surrounded by decent talent, there wasn’t another NCAA-caliber prospect on his team, which made it tough for Donovan, who is a pass-first forward. He wasn’t lighting up the stat sheet, but I generally came away from his games thinking he had a pretty good game regardless.
The USHL numbers should be taken with a grain of salt too. Aside from a the very small sample size, it’s a tough situation for a kid to drive in on the weekends and join a team that has already played together all season and develop any real chemistry. It would have been nice if he could have worked through that and still produced, and it’s a slight cause for concern that his talent didn’t overwhelm at that level, but it’s not necessarily disqualifying.
-Lack of aggression and physicality
This is the biggest concern for me. Donovan’s size and speed stand out, but neither tool means much if it can’t be used effectively. There were a number of times this year he brought the puck into the zone with tremendous speed, but instead of lowering his shoulder and cutting in towards the net to make a play, he skated around the net to avoid contact. He’s going to have to show that he can use his size as asset by being more aggressive.
The most immediate comparison people have tended to make over this draft cycle has been to Dallas 2016 first rounder Riley Tufte. Both are big, athletic players that opted to stay in high school hockey for their senior season and had questions about their scoring ability. I see some differences though. Tufte, to his credit, has re-invented himself over the course of his collegiate career to become a more physical, two-way forward. Tufte may not hit the high-side of his pre-draft projections, but should be a reliable bottom six forward that ends up being value for a late first round pick.
I haven’t, to this point, seem that same willingness to develop a more physical side of the game with Donovan. But I also think he has more of an offensive toolbox to work with than Tufte did. So even though Tufte was considered a bit of a boom-or-bust type pick, Donovan potentially comes with both a higher ceiling and much lower floor.
Best case scenario is that Donovan flourishes once he starts playing regularly with equally talented teammates and develops into a scoring line winger, or possibly even center with the way he can move. But there’s just as much of a chance, if not more so, that the scoring touch doesn’t come along and he’s never heard from again.
There’s enough uncertainty here that I can’t see Donovan being picked that high. I would not be shocked if there were multiple teams that saw enough negatives that they won’t consider drafting him at all. But even if the total package isn’t there yet, Donovan has some really unique physical traits that few other players available in this draft possess. To me, it’s absolutely worth a pick fifth round or later pick to take the gamble on whatever the missing piece is somehow developing over the next few years. I can’t see anybody going higher than the fourth round just because of his production this year, but he should be picked somewhere later in the draft.
Donovan is enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and will be a freshman next fall. With college hockey trending older, that is becoming increasingly rare for true 18-year-old freshmen unless they are extremely high draft picks. It’s a risky move for Donovan, especially after his struggles to score at the junior level this past season. The chance of him being overwhelmed by the college game, especially early, and potentially getting buried in the line-up is a huge potential risk factor.
But at the same time, being in a collegiate weight training program and the day-in/day-out grind of the college game may develop him into a more physical player at a faster rate. And the potential to possibly play with guys like Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield could be a huge boost to his numbers.
Even in the best case scenario, Donovan will need two, if not three, years at Wisconsin before it will be time to think about an NHL contract.