Sharks’ Donskoi Earned DeBoer’s Trust By Playing Simple, Mature Game
SAN JOSE — Joonas Donskoi is a human highlight reel.
In Finland, Donskoi earned a reputation for being among the most dangerous shootout threats in Europe, dangling, baffling and humiliating opposing goalies with his vast array of mind-boggling moves.
But Donskoi didn’t gain head coach Peter DeBoer’s trust with his trick plays and flashy stick work. Instead, he landed a top-six role on the Sharks by keeping things simple.
DeBoer compared Donskoi to New Jersey Devils forward Adam Henrique, who quickly earned his trust as a rookie during the 2011-12 season.
“Joonas was one of those Adam Henrique-type players because of his attention to detail, because he competes so hard, because he plays the right way,” DeBoer said.
“A lot of times [with] a young guy, you’re willing as coach to overlook some of the mistakes because you know the effort’s there, and his heart and his head are in the right place,” DeBoer said.
DeBoer’s faith in Donskoi paid off in the Sharks first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Los Angeles Kings as the Finnish rookie scored two key goals, including the game winner, during the team’s series-clinching win in Game 5.
Despite the importance of Donskoi’s role, DeBoer acknowledges that he didn’t expect him to earn a spot on the roster when he first showed up to Sharks rookie camp in July.
But Donskoi grabbed DeBoer’s attention after he collected three points in the Sharks Futures game with the Anaheim Ducks on Sept. 12, scored two goals in the team’s intrasquad scrimmage during the first weekend of training camp and found the back of the net in his first preseason game on Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski’s line.
Donskoi impressed the Sharks coaching staff so much during training camp, DeBoer didn’t hesitate to put him on the top line for the season opener in Los Angeles on Oct. 7.
“He just kept knocking on the door and wouldn’t take no for an answer,” DeBoer said after the Sharks Game 5 win in Los Angeles on April 22.
Although Donskoi posted respectable numbers during his rookie campaign this season, scoring 11 goals and recording 36 points, he maintained a spot at the top of the Sharks lineup by playing a responsible, mature game.
If playing in the NHL simply required speed, skill and goal-scoring touch, the team’s 2014 first-round draft pick Nikolay Goldobin would be competing with the parent club rather than the Barracuda.
But DeBoer is looking for players that he can trust with the little things that lead to big plays: puck placement, forward support in the defensive zone, body positioning in the corners.
“He’s a detailed coach,” said forward Nick Spaling, who played for DeBoer in junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers. “That’s something that he talks about a lot is a lot of the small things.”
Dainius Zubrus, who played for DeBoer in New Jersey before joining the Sharks in November, isn’t surprised at how quickly Donskoi earned the coach’s trust.
“He played back home against men,” Zubrus said, referring to Donskoi’s experience in the Finnish Liiga. “Even though he’s young, he’s been there. It’s not like he’s just a guy coming from juniors. He has poise, and no matter what, he doesn’t panic, he makes the right play. What you give him, that’s what he takes.”
“There’s really no ‘hope plays’ in his game. I think coaches, and myself, I really love that about him — he’s not just hoping for plays.”
Donskoi’s ability to adapt to DeBoer’s detail-oriented system is even more impressive considering that he spent his entire life playing a European style of game growing up in Finland.
“I didn’t know too much about the NHL, just what I had seen on TV,” Donskoi said. “It’s kind of a small rink, it was new to me, so I had to learn it fast to be able to play in the NHL. Early season, it took a while to get to know what you have to do in a small rink different than bigger ones, but it’s been better all the time.”
Apparently, the 24-year-old Finn is a quick learner.
“Just not try to do anything fancy,” Donskoi said, describing his approach to North American hockey. “Just use my strengths, which are skating, playing simple, working hard, puck [placement], so that’s what I’m trying to do every game.”
Although he’s a rookie, Donskoi joined the NHL with five years of professional experience playing for Karpat in the Finnish Liiga, where he won a pair of championships before signing with the Sharks last May.
DeBoer said Donskoi’s experience with Karpat facilitated his adjustment to the NHL this season.
“When you’re on a championship team, it’s usually because your best players are playing the right way,” DeBoer said. “He was a big part of that and I’m sure that helped.”
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