The Buffalo Sabres have been looking to improve the bottom-six of the lineup for years now. As general manager, Jason Botterill has tried a few different options in two years. None of which have able been to contribute the depth scoring the club has needed to maintain success.
The unrestricted free agent class this summer has a handful of decent options for the Sabres to consider to bolster the bottom of their forward lineup. The player at the top of the list may be current San Jose Sharks forward, Joonas Donskoi.
He’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer after a few years as an important part of many winning Sharks team’s. They have a lot of decisions to make this summer with Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Erik Karlsson, Gustav Nyquist and Donskoi all set to hit free agency. As well as, Timo Meier becoming a restricted free agent. Donskoi was a healthy scratch to start out the playoffs and looks to have fallen out of favor a little under Peter DeBoer.
As I mentioned, he’s been a key part of the Sharks by playing a lot of different roles up and down the lineup the last few years. According to Moneypuck, Donskoi was the third-best forward in on-ice expected goals percentage (56.2%) this season and last year he was their best forward at 56.7 percent.
His underlying numbers tell a story of a player that has been impactful at both ends of the ice. Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model ranks him as the 90th ranked forward in the NHL from 2016 to 2019 in total expected goals plus-minus impact.
Donskoi also grades out well on Micah McCurdy’s isolated impacts. He a positive player at both ends of the ice and is also extremely good in penalty differential.
The 27-year-old forward was tied for 22nd among all forwards this season in Evolving Hockey’s penalty goals above replacement metric. His overall GAR this past season ranked him 51st overall among forwards (11.2).
His impressive analytical statistics compliment his production. In each of the last two seasons, Donskoi has scored 14 goals. He set a career high in points this season with 37 but played at a higher points per 82 pace last season scoring 32 points in 66 games.
The Finnish native does a lot of his work around the net in the offensive zone. He’s good on the walls and goes to the high-danger area of the ice to score. The shot density chart below from Sean Tierney is a good visualization of that.
Looking at all of these numbers it seems odd that the Sharks would move on from a player of his caliber. If you don’t know, Donskoi ended the season on a 35-game scoreless drought. That’s why he started the playoffs as a healthy scratch. That type of cold streak could give you some pause about signing that player in free agency.
I looked into some numbers and a few factors appeared to have contributed to the drought at the end of the season. The first thing was that Donskoi was due for a shooting percentage regression. We saw a similar situation with Jeff Skinner this season for the Sabres.
At the 50 game mark of the season, Donskoi was shooting at a little over 18 percent. Going into this season he was a 9.1 percent shooter for his career. Therefore he was shooting at a rate double to his career average. He ended the season with a 12.2 shooting percentage, which is a career high. The chart below gives you a look at his rolling shoot percentage over the 80 games he played via Evolving Hockey.
The Sharks also changed some of his usage around the trade deadline. He saw a lot of offensive zone starts early in the season, but with the deadline acquisitions, he began to see some more defensive zone starts. DeBoer can be all over the place with usage of players, but there’s a clear trend in the second half of the season for Donskoi. On the chart below you’ll see how his zone starts remain low in the final 30 games. His average ZSR throughout the season is shown on the y-axis (left).
Lastly, with Nyquist getting some top-nine minutes after coming over from the Detroit Red Wings, Donskoi saw his minutes reduced in the second half of the season.
For the majority of his career, he’s played third line minutes, but at the end of last season, he trailed towards fourth line minutes as Micah McCurdy’s chart below shows.
Combining the three factors of shooting percentage regression, usage, and ice-time reduction you can see there’s some reasoning behind Donskoi’s scoring drought. There isn’t anything in the numbers that gives a reason to be concerned about moving forward with his production.
If the Sabres do end up signing Donskoi, he may fit best as a third line right wing with Casey Mittelstadt. He can help the young center defensively and can also produce offensively. He also fits on that wing because he excels in more offensive zone start situations, as does Mittelstadt at this point in his career.
Evolving Hockey’s contract projection has Donskoi worth a three-year contract with an annual average salary a little over $2.8 million. Not a bad deal at all when you take into account everything I discussed above regarding his game. Logically there should be a lot of suitors, but it’ll be interesting to see if the scoring drought scared some teams off come July.
Donskoi seems like a great fit for the Sabres with his experience, position versatility, and ability to provide secondary scoring.