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2018-19 Season Review: Joonas Donskoi, the ultimate moneyball contract

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Talk about providing value way over his salary cap hit.

Joonas Donskoi of the San Jose Sharks attempts to get past Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche in the third period during Game 6 of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Pepsi Center on May 6, 2019 in
Dangle hero.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It seemed much of the criticism directed at Joonas Donskoi this season was about his lack of consistent scoring. It’s a perplexing bit of flack to hurl at the 27-year-old winger, especially when taking his salary cap hit into consideration. By scoring 37 points in 80 games, Donskoi collected 0.46 points for every game he played. Few players with his kind of contract added points to their scoresheet as often as he did, and many averaged a few more shifts each night.

Point-per-game rates are poor ways to judge players, however. Instead, we can examine what other contributions he made to the team this season.

Joonas Donskoi Getty Images/Fear the Fin illustration by JD Young

If we must dissect scoring contributions, the best place to start is at even strength, after controlling for ice time. At 5-on-5, Donskoi scored primary points at the rate of a second-line forward (HockeyViz). According to Micah Blake McCurdy’s shooting quality model, Donskoi’s taken unblocked shots that are five percent more likely than average to go in. The Evolving Hockey expected shooting percentage model isn’t quite as kind — this season has been the only during which Donskoi scored more often than expected — but it shows a player whose shot selection this season was among the league’s best. In short, Donskoi’s goal-scoring abilities have consistently yielded second-line scoring from a player receiving third-line minutes.

That Donskoi’s scoring rate is more impressive than it seems at first glance does not mean he is above reproach. Like any player, Donskoi’s season came in peaks and valleys. This year it seemed his valleys were sharp and deep, and the coaching staff noticed.

Joonas Donskoi of the San Jose Sharks is the team’s most moneyball player
Big ups, but some big downs
Natural Stat Trick

In an ideal world, we have a rolling average of something like the regularized adjusted plus/minus (RAPM) that Evolving Hockey calculates. But, beyond it probably not making a ton of sense to make adjustments like those on a game-by-game basis, that information just isn’t out there at that cadence. Instead, we can look at Donskoi’s rolling average of shot share relative to the rest of the team. It’s not a great metric, but it can serve as a barometer for how he played at 5-on-5 during the season.

You can see that in two case in particular, his play relative to the team dipped well below average. The first big dip may have been partly a result of being foist onto a makeshift first line with Joe Pavelski and Evander Kane. The later dip — centered around Game 55 — is difficult to pin on his teammates. That came smack in the middle of his time with Tomas Hertl and Kane, a line that controlled a higher share of shots relative to the rest of the team (Corsica).

Whether it made sense for someone like Micheal Haley or Melker Karlsson to play over Donskoi during Donskoi’s down cycles is debatable. Whether, regardless of how much skill he possesses and how well he navigates the neutral zone, Donskoi struggled at times this season should be a less controversial topic. Every player has ups and downs over the course of the season, but there’s evidence to suggest Donskoi had a couple slides that lasted for a handful of games.

If his regular season play is up for debate, his postseason almost certainly is not. After the coaching staff mystifyingly sat Donskoi during the first few games of the series against the Vegas Golden Knights, they returned him to the lineup after injuries took their toll. It was almost apparent from the first shift of his first playoff game that he wouldn’t leave the lineup the rest of the spring.

On more than a few occasions, Donskoi looked like one of, if not the best, Sharks forward on the ice. He seemed to breathe life into a fourth line that spent the second season on life support, and he eventually regained his place back alongside Hertl and Kane on the second line, if only for a game or two. Donskoi would finish the playoffs with the Sharks’ fifth-best shot share and fourth-best expected goal share relative to his teammates at 5-on-5. Maybe most importantly, on a team that struggled to limit opponents’ scoring chances, Donskoi held onto the fifth-lowest rate of expected goals against relative to his teammates.

According to the latest episode of the 31 Thoughts podcast, Elliotte Friedman mentions that he believes the Sharks are trying to incorporate Donskoi into their summer plans. For a player who seemed almost destined to be an afterthought in free agency a few months ago, Donskoi seems to have silenced his fair share of doubters during the season’s closing weeks.

Career Summary (via HockeyViz)

Joonas Donskoi of the San Jose Sharks of the national hockey league NHL
Pretty regular scoring with the exception of one down season
HockeyViz

The only season Donksoi hasn’t scored at a second-line rate was his second season in the league, when he missed a number of games. Since then, the forward has consistently turned third-line minutes into top-six scoring all while being paid a pittance compared to players with similar scoring rates. It’s not a sure thing he’d retain his scoring rate if he played more minutes, but for the moment he’s producing above his role in the lineup at a bargain basement price, and there’s not much more you can ask from a guy than that.

RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)

Joonas Donskoi of the San Jose Sharks NHL hockey team
Donskoi’s season had ups and downs but was generally positive
EvolvingHockey

If there is anything to take from this chart it’s that Donskoi’s impact on total even-strength shot share hovered just above average this season. It seems that a player’s shot share as expressed through these RAPM metrics best predicts his future performance, and Donksoi’s work there isn’t all that exciting if we are looking for long-term contributions. Still, player performance in these categories fluctuates from year to year, and a somewhat down season isn’t a sure indicator of bad things to come. If Donskoi re-signs with the Sharks, pay close attention to his ability to impact shot share as the season wears on. How he does in that department may be telling of his current place along his career arc.

Highlight

In a goal that was reminiscent of his Stanley Cup Final game-winning goal three springs ago, Donskoi flashes his skill, understanding of the game, and shooting ability all in one, brief play. As Burns cradles the puck along the boards, Donskoi enters the zone on a line change. Realizing he is unmarked, he heads to an open area of the ice, where Burns can easily get him the puck. Using his momentum to take advantage of the fact he’s been left wide open, Donskoi circles the net and flips the puck near side, taking the Sharks’ lead to two goals and helping erase any doubt of Colorado storming back. It’s these sorts of plays around the net that Donskoi helps create, and his finishing ability is apparent when he gets time and space to make an attempt on goal.

What comes next?

It is surprising to hear that the Sharks would like to bring Donksoi back. At least outwardly, his healthy scratches and lack of raw scoring totals seemed to indicate a player-team relationship on the fritz. Especially with big decisions for Erik Karlsson and Timo Meier’s contract looming, the salary cap cushion the team enjoys now might deflate quickly this summer. According to Friedman, the team is of course trying to sign players to team-friendly deals, though Doug Wilson may have to redefine the phrase if he’s going to fit everyone back in under the salary cap.

According to Evolving Wild’s contract projections, Donskoi’s most likely outcome this summer is a three-year contract at $2.8 million average annual value (AAV). After that, the next most likely outcomes look like four years at $3.387 million per year or one year at $1.53 million per year. Any of these cap hits would be an incredible value in a vacuum.

But this team will not experience anything like a vacuum unless Erik Karlsson vacates his current role atop the defense corps depth chart. For Donksoi to fit with Karlsson, Meier and Kevin Labanc’s contracts, Joe “I’m a Shark” Thornton’s deal, and a potential re-upping for Gustav Nyquist, Donskoi may have to slide below his current price. If the Sharks do manage to re-sign him for anything near these terms, his contract might just end up representing the best non-ELC value on the team.