Jake Gardiner has been a higher offensive producer than Matt Donovan in the NCAA, AHL and the NHL, but both are 23-year-old offensive-oriented defensemen who experienced a similar phenomenon for young players: Being leashed, fearing mistakes, and having to "earn" the trust of coaches to fully pursue their roving ways.
It's the classic story for offensive talents, particularly on the blueline: They are allowed, and eventually encouraged, to take puck risks that others are not because they have the ability to make it pay off. But it's a blurry, undefined line between too much risk for too little reward, and it seems every NHL coach uses the eye test to determine which side of the line a defenseman falls.
This was Donovan's fullest NHL season, and it featured just 52 games (2-14-16) and two returns to AHL Bridgeport before finishing the NHL season strong.
Gardiner actually already had a full NHL season under his belt from two years ago, when he played 75 games for the Leafs (7-23-30). This season he played 80 games (10-21-31), yet it was frustrating as he and many Leafs observers felt he was underused.
He was trusted more toward the end, but Randy Carlyle's post-season debrief included an "old school" response on the question of if anything stood out during player exit meetings. According to Michael Traikos of the National Post:
Carlyle thought about the question and then brought up an interview that seemed to mystify him. He did not give a name. But it was clear from his description — "a young defenceman that’s playing rover-type hockey" — that he was talking about Jake Gardiner.
The "young defenceman," who had been afforded a longer leash at the end of the season, had asked why he was not given the same freedom at the beginning. Carlyle’s response was the "young defenceman" had to earn his stripes.
Gardiner, who was arguably Toronto’s best defencemen this season, might have been the team’s only bright spot in a miserable second half. He scored five of his team-leading 10 goals and had nine of his 21 assists in the final 22 games. His ice time in April was the most of any Leafs defenceman, as he emerged into a core player who should be considered untouchable in the off-season.
"[He’s] coming back and feeling that the leash he was afforded in the beginning of the season wasn’t as long as the one at the end of the season," said Carlyle. "And the coach says, well if you had have played longer you would have had a longer leash. It’s sort of the chicken before the egg.
"That was just a surprise and then the comparison of who he compared himself with that was kind of shocking."
It doesn't say who Gardiner -- if this was Gardiner, which it probably was -- compared himself to, but you can see the conflict of the modern NHL here: Old school coaches still built on the value of earning your merit and opportunity (which still has its place, but mileage varies), versus brash young player who believes talent should rule regardless of age, and sees growing examples of it throughout the league.
The Islanders are not this extreme in their sort of "seniority" meritocracy; for every prospect fans believe was held back too long, there are examples of players given freedom to run at an early age (albeit sometimes by necessity rather than by bumping a veteran out of the lineup).
But they definitely have some of that common NHL "bros before rookies" ethic, and I think we saw it with how Donovan was handled this year. You can argue it also happened with Brock Nelson (72 games) and Ryan Strome (37 games), but to lesser extents: I'd venture when you believe in veterans like Peter Regin and Pierre-Marc Bouchard enough to sign them in summer, you at least want to give your investment 25-30 games. The next 5-10 games are another matter.
Anyway, to Donovan: He's not as good as Gardiner. Like Gardiner, he makes some noticeable mistakes while playing with the puck that can lead to scoring chances against. Unlike other defensemen who are afforded longer leashes, those mistakes come in the pursuit of offense rather than in the course of just "getting the puck out" etc.
Some of those memorable mistakes cost him, and probably helped influence his reassignment, judging by comments on which parts of his game to work on at the time. But the final month appeared to be Donovan at his optimal form, to the point he even got the call to Team USA for the World Championship.
Still, his is a position that requires confidence in himself, based on a feeling of confidence from the coaching staff, to find that equilibrium between safety and risk. It's something even Norris-winning P.K. Subban faces in Montreal.
Here's Donovan in the Connecticut Post, as he finishes out this season in Bridgeport before heading to Belarus:
"This year has kind of been a roller coaster," Donovan said. "The last month has been a lot better. I got my confidence up, got some points, jumped into the offense, not worrying about making mistakes."
We'll see how it goes next season. With the deep blueline prospect pipeline the Islanders have, competition for jobs is only going to intensify -- and instead of veterans squeezing him for playing time, it will be fellow youngsters, some of whom possess the more traditional "grit" blueline attributes.
In any case, however it goes for Donovan, I think we can trust the hiccups won't be aired in the mystifying way they've been aired around Gardiner in Toronto. That's in part thanks to the media intensity around these two teams being at opposite ends of the spectrum, but it's also because whatever the Isles' staff's flaws, their internal laundry doesn't get aired (at least until a player agent decides to air it for them).