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Man in the middle: Donato opens camp as a centerman

Wild hopes move to pivot adds balance to lefty-heavy forward rotation

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

ST. PAUL -- When the Wild acquired Ryan Donato from the Boston Bruins last February, the young forward came with the expectation that the team was acquiring a dynamic young winger that could fill the net at will.

As it turns out, Donato can play center too.

While he didn't see time down the middle for the Wild in his brief two-month stint with the club last season, he's started training camp at center in a somewhat surprising move designed to balance things out from a handedness perspective.

Because the Wild are so left-handed heavy, having Donato in the middle allows Minnesota the luxury of moving the right-handed Luke Kunin back to right wing, which helps maintain balance among the Wild's forward groups. 

Kunin, who played a bunch of center after the injury to Mikko Koivu last season, was penciled into the position again in many of Wild coach Bruce Boudreau's summer line charts.

But as camp drew nearer and the Wild's glaring lefty-righty imbalance became clearer, the idea to research Donato in the middle grew legs. While it's not a certainty that Donato will begin the season at center, it's something Wild coach Bruce Boudreau is certainly intrigued by.

"It's an experiment. I was talking to somebody and they had mentioned it, and I said, 'That's very interesting.' I did the background check and then I phoned his dad," Boudreau said. "If this could work that would be quite an advantage to us with all of our left-handed shots and people playing sort of out of position. So we're going to give it a shot and see where it goes."

Boudreau doesn't make a habit of calling the fathers of his players, but Ryan's dad is Harvard head coach and former NHLer Ted Donato, who played for Boudreau with the Manchester Monarchs once upon a time.

Video: Bruce Boudreau on Ryan Donato at center

"Sometimes Teddy talks to me, not as the coach, but as the dad which is pretty understandable," Boudreau said.

Even with a biased opinion, the evidence was hard to ignore. 

Donato won ECAC Player of the Year and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist, scoring 26 goals and 43 points during his junior year with the Crimson. 

He signed a NHL contract after the season and finished the year with the Boston Bruins, scoring five goals and nine points in 12 games. 

Last year, he combined for 17 goals and 37 points in 75 games between Boston, Minnesota and the AHL's Providence Bruins as a wing.

But center wasn't just a one-year thing for Donato at Harvard. He grew up playing the pivot.

"I've been naturally a center my whole life," Donato said.

Donato's future, had he remained with the Bruins, appeared to be on the wing. But his trade to Minnesota, and the Wild's lefty-righty lopsidedness, has apparently allowed him a chance to go back to his natural position. 

"It's a tough league to be able to be put right in and play center," Donato said. "But now that I've seen what you need to be able to do, being a guy who is a natural centerman, I think I can do it for sure."

Donato said he never told Boudreau about his position history, but when the coach asked him about his comfort level playing in the middle, he didn't hesitate in his response.

Video: Donato, Greenway eager for start of season

"I said I'm 100 percent comfortable playing whatever position you want me to play," Donato said.

Adding to Donato's comfort level is the veteran personnel he's been lined up with early camp. To his left is veteran Zach Parise, who led the Wild with 28 goals last season. To his right is veteran Mats Zuccarello, one of the NHL's best playmakers. 

Adding a shooter like Donato to one like Parise should give a dynamic passer like Zuccarello another option when trying to create offense. 

That's the plan on paper, at least. 

"You put a guy who can distribute the puck with two guys who can release the puck and go to the net like Ryan and Zach ... when you're doing these lines in the summer, it sure looked like it might work," Boudreau said. "Doing it on the ice and on paper are two different things but we'll see how it works out."

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