There was a spotlight on him, no doubt about it.
In comparison, this year’s camp has been a welcome reprieve.
“There’s such young talent here, with a lot of the guys, and it felt more comfortable,” Donato said after the fourth and final on-ice session of this year’s development camp at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington, Mass. “Just worrying about my game, not worrying about anything off the ice, and just making sure I play my game and show the scouts what I’ve learned over the year, and that’s pretty much it. I just wanted to make sure I could keep my head level, and play hockey.”
Bruins Development Coach Jay Pandolfo said that last year, when an 18-year-old Donato arrived for camp — with another year of prep school ahead of him before he would even get a taste of NCAA-level competition at Harvard College — he was a bit green.
In the year since, that player has grown leaps and bounds.
“He seems really relaxed,” Pandolfo said. “I think he’s excited to get into college — he still kind of played that high school schedule last year, so the challenge this year to play in college is really going to help him. He’s done a great job.
“Last year, [he] came in, didn’t know what to expect, and he’s gotten in much better shape, so he’s ready to make that next step into college and kind of see where he goes from there.”
Following last year’s camp, Boston’s staff told Donato they wanted to see him become a faster skater. So last year — during which he played 13 games with the South Shore Kings and eight games with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, in addition to the games he played at the Dexter School in Brookline — he dedicated himself to becoming faster. He became a smoother skater. He conditioned himself for what he knew the coaching staff expected of him at camp, and he returned for a second summer a much more mature player.
“I’ve worked a lot on my conditioning and just being powerful in my legs,” Donato said. “I think that’s one of the big things I worked on, one of the things they wanted me to change. I think one thing I want to focus on now is just being an all-around defensive player and, at the same time, being offensive, also.”
Donato’s development in his first year post-draft was a bit unique when compared with the others in his class. Instead of heading to juniors or college, he spent another year on the prep school circuit, but to ask him, that was the very best thing for him.
“A lot of the guys are looking down on prep school now, but I think it was a blessing in disguise for me — I played every game, was on the power play, penalty kill, and every game, I had two guys trying to hack and whack me and get in my head,” he said. “Then, when I went out to the USHL, it actually felt fast, but I felt like I had more space and time, and there were also guys on the ice that were dangerous, and I could help them be a better player. It was just an overall good time out there. I enjoyed it.”
After seeing Donato on the ice for a couple of days at this year’s camp, Pandolfo, too, could confidently say that the unorthodox schedule didn’t hurt Donato.
“I don’t think it’s a lost year in development,” Pandolfo said. “He’s taken all the stuff that he’s learned here, and he’s done the work off the ice, and he’s definitely shown improvement already, so he’s just going to improve that much more when he’s playing against bigger guys and college guys all year long next year.”
Donato’s situation at Harvard will be a bit unorthodox in a way, too. There, he will be suiting up for his dad: former Bruin and Crimson Head Coach Ted Donato.
But it has become clear that there isn’t much that intimidates Donato, playing for his dad included. He is simply excited to begin his college career, excited to take another step that brings him closer to ultimately wearing the Spoked-B.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I’ve been eager all along for the last couple of years, just being at the rink watching every game, watching some of the practices. I just feel blessed a little bit, just to be able to get over there and get started, finally.”
Like Donato, Danton Heinen was drafted in the summer of 2014, but he was unable to attend last year’s development camp due to academic commitments.
This year’s camp, therefore, marked his first real introduction into the Boston Bruins organization, and he loved everything he saw of it.
“It was a lot of fun, just coming in and getting to know everybody, getting to know the guys,” he said. “Just trying to learn lots. It was definitely fun to come in here for the first time.”
Heinen entered his first pro camp as one of the team’s most highly-touted NCAA prospects: As a freshman at Denver, he tallied 42 points in 34 games, finishing second in freshman scoring to none other than Jack Eichel. He was the only unanimous selection to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s All-Rookie Team.
Heinen shrugs off any praise that comes as a result of his stellar rookie campaign — he credits a “good opportunity” from Head Coach Jim Montgomery and “playing with some great players” — but his skills spoke for themselves in the eyes of Pandolfo over the course of this past week.
“You can tell he’s talented,” Pandolfo said on Wednesday. “He’s got a lot of poise with the puck, he’s got a great release, great shot — he’s going to be a really good player. He still needs to get a little bit stronger; that will help him with protecting pucks. But he looks really good. I thought he stood out.”
As for when he might be ready to suit up in a Bruins uniform — whether it be in Providence or in Boston — Pandolfo and General Manager Don Sweeney were noncommittal. Pandolfo admitted that perhaps, given Heinen’s rampant success after his first season with Denver, he is further along in his development than originally anticipated, but the B’s brass needs to see more from him before making a projection with regards to his future.
“We just want to kind of let him develop, and be patient with him,” Pandolfo said. “If we feel like he’s ready, then that’s when we’ll take the next step with him. But right now, he’s progressing the right way.
“He had a great year last year; now, sometimes, sophomore year can be a little tougher. Guys kind of know how he plays now, and it will be a little harder for him. So it will be interesting to see how he does this year. But the way he looks out there right now, he’s headed in the right direction.”
Sweeney reiterated several times that he and his staff will never give a player a timeline for when he should leave school in favor of starting a pro career. That is a determination each player must make for himself, he said, and after that determination is made, the conversation begins with the team.
The case is no different for Heinen.
“Jimmy Montgomery’s not going to want to hear me say, ‘He’s ready to come out now,’” Sweeney said with a smile. “He’s the coach in Denver, so he wants Heinen. And rightfully so.
“A lot of times, it’s just staying in communication with everybody to say, OK, we’re going to make the best decision for, first and foremost, the organization, the player and the situation he’s in, as to where he’s going to continue to grow and develop.”
For now, in Heinen’s case, Denver is the place for him to best continue his development, and in his eyes, that is perfectly fine. Though he is satisfied with the progress he has made since hearing his name called at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, he has plenty he wants to continue to improve upon before he is ready to make the leap.
“[I’ll] just try to keep doing the same things — try to keep getting better as well, and always keep working hard,” he said. “Then I think it will work out.”
Kuraly Enjoying First Taste of Boston
A few weeks ago, when Sean Kuraly began making his summer plans, he was expecting to attend San Jose’s development camp.
Then, in a move that sent goaltender Martin Jones to the Sharks, Kuraly found his rights being traded to Boston, along with a 2016 first-round draft pick.
Needless to say, his plans changed.
“It was a little much,” Kuraly admitted with a laugh. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect, and then it just kind of came on all of a sudden. But at the end of the day, it’s just exciting. I’m excited to be here. It was a great week, a lot of fun, learned a lot — just a fun, fun city to be in, and a great group of guys. It was a lot of fun.”
The Sharks selected Kuraly in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, and in the years that followed, the left-shot forward has developed into a potent offensive weapon at Miami University. Now, as he enters his senior season with the RedHawks, he can’t help but contemplate what lies ahead for him after that — but he is thrilled at the prospect of continuing his career with Boston.
“It just seems like a great organization,” Kuraly said. “It’s got storied history, a championship culture, everyone’s a professional — it’s pretty cool to see, and something I’m proud to be a part of. It’s something that I wanted in an organization, to be something like that, and I just got lucky with this particular trade.”
Pandolfo was pleasantly surprised with what he saw from Kuraly after just one on-ice session at this year’s camp.
“He’s a big body,” Pandolfo said. “He’s a counterman. He plays hard. I think he fits the mold for a Bruin, and that’s what we like about him. I saw him once play at Miami, and I could tell he was really a good player, and he’s powerful, but this is the first time I’ve seen him up close.
“He’s better with the puck than I thought he was. He’s strong, he’s hard on pucks, he’s mature already, he’s physically developed, so I think he’s going to definitely push for a job next year.”
Pandolfo was also impressed with the way Kuraly handled the news of the trade. News like that can be a bit overwhelming for a prospect, but Pandolfo said Kuraly has handled the change with maturity. That can only bode well for his career on the ice.
“I think he was expecting to go out to San Jose’s development camp, and then all of a sudden, you get traded,” Pandolfo said. “It was probably a little bit of a shock to him, but nowadays, I think guys are so aware that something can happen at any time, so he’s gotten an education pretty quickly of how this business works.
“But he’s really excited to be here, he’s had a great attitude, and we’re happy to have him.”
Zboril Signed; Kemppainen Still on Track
The Bruins announced on Wednesday that they had signed defenseman Jakub Zboril to an entry-level contract, and on Friday, Sweeney said that the timing of the signing was no coincidence.
The deadline for signing Zboril, whom the Bruins selected with the 13th overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft, was on July 15.
“We could have waited,” Sweeney said on Friday, “but we felt it was a good opportunity to beat that deadline. And the type of player [he is], I think that he’ll thrive — and I’m hoping that he’ll thrive — with the challenge of now being officially signed and maybe the pressure that comes along with that.”
Following Thursday’s on-ice session, Pandolfo said that after they signed Zboril, the Bruins brass gave him the necessary information and tools he needs to begin his transition into the type of player the Bruins would like him to become, particularly with regards to his conditioning.
Sweeney said that Zboril most likely will return to his junior team in St. John of the QMJHL, but still, the line of communication is now open, which will allow the development process to continue most effectively.
“In all likelihood, unless he makes our team, he’s going to go back to juniors, and [will] have a lot of responsibility there,” Sweeney said. “[We] wanted to kind of continue to have that challenge in front of him that says, ‘We speak highly of you, we think highly of you, but you have work to do, and we want to make sure we’re in direct communication that that work continues.’”
Another player that the Bruins expect to see at training camp in a couple of months is Joonas Kemppainen, who signed a one-year, two-way deal with the club back in May.
Due to a hamstring injury, Kemppainen was unable to take the ice during this year’s development camp, but Sweeney said there was still a significant benefit to having him in attendance. Though he is 27 years old, Kemppainen has never played in the NHL and is coming off a nine-year run in the Finnish Elite League. It was important, therefore, for him to get a feel for the Bruins organization now, rather than coming in for the first time — with the added pressure of making the team — during training camp.
“[In Kemppainen], you have a player who’s older; he’s ready,” Sweeney said. “If you speak to him, he’s very serious. He’s a pro. He understands the challenge in front of him, but I think getting him acclimated to a staff — to people in and around the organization — was important. And we were adamant in terms of bringing him over, even though we knew, in likelihood, he wouldn’t go on the ice.
“Does it set him back, not being on the ice? Maybe a little, just because he’s unfamiliar with certain drills or certain things that may happen, and our coaches being able to interact [with him], but he’s been around the game a while. He’s 27 years old, so he’s going to be ready physically. Now, it’s just a matter of having him as comfortable as possible so that there’s not a steep learning curve when you first get here, and he knows people now.
“He’s not walking through the door — I use this example a lot — where you’re staring at your toes instead of shaking somebody’s hand and knowing that you’ve started to build a relationship.”