by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat
A lot of hockey players hope for a second chance at a National Hockey League career. Many don’t ever get that opportunity.
Milwaukee Admirals defenseman Matt Donovan thought he was one of those players. Following four years of mostly split time between the New York Islanders and Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and another with the Rochester Americans, Donovan found himself in the playing in the Swedish Elite League.
Two years later, and taking full advantage of a second chance the Nashville Predators provided him, Donovan has become a dominant force in the American Hockey League. Donovan ranks fourth on the Admirals with 10 goals and 23 points, and last weekend represented the team (along with goaltender Troy Grosenick) in the 2019 AHL All-Star Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Donovan finished with two goals in the Central Division’s three games, both coming in his team’s 5-3 win over the Pacific Division. Donovan’s first goal was one of the highlights of the weekend. On a breakaway, the defenseman faked out goaltender Josef Korenar by deking the puck between his own legs and then firing from that position into the top corner, a move that earned him the #3 play on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10.
— Milwaukee Admirals (@mkeadmirals) January 29, 2019
One day earlier Donovan helped the Western Conference win the Skills Competition, registering a 96.0 miles per hour blast in the CCM Hardest Shot contest.
“It was an honor to be able to play in the All-Star game last weekend,” said Donovan, who has 19 points in 67 career NHL games. “I had a fantastic time and it was very special for me to be able to enjoy it with my family this time.”
It was a long and winding road for Donovan to get to the Predators organization. The Edmond, Oklahoma, native starred for two seasons at the University of Denver from 2009-11 before developing into a top prospect with the Islanders, who had drafted him in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL entry draft.
It did not take long for Donovan to stand out as a pro. In his first full season, he racked up 10 goals and 45 points with the Sound Tigers, earning AHL All-Rookie Team honors and a three-game stint in the NHL with New York. The following season was even better for Donovan, as he upped his goal total to 14 and finished with 48 points.
Donovan might have felt like his AHL days were behind him in 2013-14, as he was now a valuable member of the Islanders defense group. That year Donovan played a full season on Long Island and contributed 16 points in 52 games.
But despite getting into his first NHL playoff action the following spring, Donovan’s career changed course. After playing the 2015-16 season exclusively in the AHL with Rochester, the offensive defenseman decided to take his talents overseas to Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League.
The Predators also showed interest in Donovan at that time.
“I’ve always kind of had an understanding with Nashville as they’ve always liked me as a player,” Donovan said. “Nashville even tried to sign me a couple of years back, but they just didn’t have room.”
Donovan’s skills blended nicely with the European style of play and the larger ice surface. With powerhouse Frolunda, he retooled his defensive game under coach Roger Ronnberg — posting his best plus/minus in his previous four seasons — as well as seven goals in 52 games. Donovan also improved his conditioning, which was key in triggering an interest in coming back to North America.
“Working out properly was a big deal over there and it really got me in shape,” Donovan said. “I lost about 10 pounds and that really helped my skating and my mobility on the ice. You have to be able to skate in Europe on the big ice, move your feet when you get the puck and not stand still. That definitely helped me back in North America as I transitioned back into the North American game.”
Just as they had in previous years, Nashville was interested in seeing how Donovan would fit in their system, so the Predators reached out. With Donovan eager for a second chance to play in North America, this time the match proved to be near perfect.
“I’m the type of defenseman that fits well in the Predators system,” Donovan said. “They have a lot of good offensive defenseman and they are stacked up there with those kinds of guys, so coming here was a good fit for me.”
Donovan raced out of the gates with his new squad this season, leading his team with nine goals in his first 23 games as Milwaukee jumped out to an early lead in the competitive Central Division. The 28-year-old’s fine play led to exactly what Donovan was hoping for: a new NHL two-way contract. He signed it on Nov. 5.
“I kind of had an understanding with the Predators that if I did play well, and did the things they wanted me to, I had the opportunity to turn that AHL contract into a two-way deal,” Donovan said.
Donovan fit perfectly in new Milwaukee coach Karl Taylor’s up-tempo system. For his part the Admirals bench boss appreciated what he had in the Admirals’ offseason acquisition right away.
“(Matt’s) been doing what he needs to do to get back in the NHL and I think he landed in a perfect spot in Milwaukee and with Nashville,” Taylor said. “He’s had a great start to the season, and was red hot as far as producing goals and making plays. He’s really helped our power play.”
Taylor also appreciates the way Donovan earned his new contact, and how that can inspire his teammates.
“It’s great that our team was able to find a way to reward him and inspire our other guys on the same type of contract,” Taylor said. “They see that if you do the work, you will get rewarded. It’s a great message for our whole group.”
Speedy Admirals forward Anthony Richard, who leads the Admirals with 17 goals, found great chemistry with Donovan right from the get go this season.
“As a defenseman (Matt) is very mobile and skates up the ice very well,” Richard said. “Not many defensemen see the game like he does, so it’s a lot of fun to play with him. Plus his shot, especially his one-timer, is outstanding.”
Though Donovan’s play has cooled as of late as Milwaukee endured a recent slide, he will be an important factor in his team’s prospects for the rest of 2018-19 as well as next season.
“When (Matt) gets the puck he does a lot of good things with it and he’s definitely a go-to guy offensively for our team,” Richard said. “We are lucky to have him, and it’s very good to have him on our side.”