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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Early last fall, when veteran forward Joel Ward attended his first skate with the San Jose Sharks, he knew nothing about the teammate he now calls “our sneaky weapon.” Nationality, history, whether the player had been drafted by the organization or, like Ward, signed during free agency—all were mysteries to Ward. Nonetheless, he left the rink impressed with what he saw on the ice. Upon returning to the local hotel where he was staying, Ward even told his girlfriend about the fleet-footed forward who, from his vantage point, had appeared from nowhere.
Ward was not alone in this experience. Upon agreeing to become the Sharks’ newest head coach in late May, Pete DeBoer began reviewing his new roster, foremost focusing on the big names. Joe Pavelski. Joe Thornton. Patrick Marleau. Brent Burns. Logan Couture. “Guys coming back and guys on the radar who I thought might make the team,” DeBoer says.
The implication is clear. The winger whose two goals helped clinch the Sharks’ first-round win over the Kings last weekend; the two-time Finnish Elite League champion who had eight points in eight games at the 2015 IIHF World Championships; the pleasant top-six surprise dubbed by DeBoer today as “an X-factor for us” entering their Western Conference semifinals matchup with the Predators—that guy had originally been slated for the minors.
No one, it seemed, expected quite this much from Joonas Donskoi.
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Those days are over, of course, in particular here at the Sharks’ practice facility where Donskoi’s stall has attracted a decent-sized crowd during the past several days. Much of this is owed to his recent heroics, like when he dragged the puck around Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin and cranked it past Jonathan Quick not 70 seconds into Saturday’s first period of the Game 5 series finale.
During a quieter moment once the locker room doors closed, interrupted only by shouts from a spirited table tennis match between defenseman Brenden Dillon and forward Tomas Hertl, Donskoi reflects on his journey to San Jose. He hails from Raahe, a portside town located along the Gulf of Bothnia, where he dreamed of reaching the NHL from an early age. “I think I said it first time, maybe, three years old,” he says. “I always had big passion for hockey.”
In June 2010, after he debuted with Kärpät in Finland’s highest league, Donskoi was picked 99th overall by the Florida Panthers, who were entering their first off-season under new GM Dale Tallon but were still three years away from finding stable ownership with Vinnie Viola. According to Donskoi’s agent, Scott Bartlett, the two sides “engaged in some initial contract negotiations for him,” but the Panthers “were a little more cautious with their money. We hit a stalling point where eventually it didn’t make sense for them to bring him over, and it didn’t make sense for him to come over at the level he was at.” In other words, Donskoi still felt like he could grow at home.
“It’s not been like this all the time,” he says. “My rookie season I was playing well, then I had two seasons when I was not at my best, I had some injuries and I was not playing good, but I was lucky enough to get back.” Part of this Donskoi attributes to Lauri Marjamäki, who became Kärpät’s head coach in 2013-14 and now helms the Finnish national team. In their first season together, Donskoi notched 26 assists and 37 points, both career-highs at the time, then topped them with 19 goals and 30 assists in 2014-15. Both years, Kärpät won the SM-liiga; last season, with 22 points in 19 playoff games, Donskoi won postseason MVP honors too.
“I learned a lot of stuff,” he says. “Eating, sleeping, I lost a little bit weight, I was better athlete. When you’re better athlete then you’re a better hockey player. I think that’s things that young players don’t know or understand. It’s not only being a hockey player. You just have to be good athlete, especially these days when everyone’s so good. It’s small difference that you have to make.”
Coupled with his 11 points in 12 games at the world championships, where Finland bowed out to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, Donskoi fielded quite the courtship while the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs were happening stateside. Some teams had begun sniffing around in mid-winter, and in Bartlett’s estimation 10 reached out by May. But the Sharks were fronting the line, which meant something to Donskoi. “He decided to go with the team that showed the first interest,” Bartlett says. “It was more about the opportunity than the money. Obviously the entry-level contract is what it is, but San Jose was consistent in expressing its interest.”
Especially now, the $925,000 cap hit—plus the $100,000 bonus Bartlett says his client hit for finishing among San Jose’s top six forwards in aggregate ice time—seems like a bargain, but DeBoer entered training camp with low expectations, wary of heaping too much hype onto a free agent who was already handling a language barrier in a new country.
“He kind of slid under the radar, like, Who’s this guy?” Bartlett says. “I don't think people were necessarily saying this is going to be a huge impact player, but he’s obviously done the job of turning that perception around.”
The Sharks started slowly by putting Donskoi into rookie camp, where he dominated. Once he hung strong at the team's main training camp, he appeared in several exhibition games. Then he made the roster. Then he started on opening night at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he was credited for his first NHL goal in a 5–1 rout of the Kings. Really, Pavelski’s point-blank shot happened to deflect off Donskoi, who was busy getting pushed into the net, but it hardly mattered. The new guy was on the board.
“Huge effect,” DeBoer says today. “He’s a legitimate top-six NHL forward. We’ve added him basically for free and when no one was really expecting him. For me, as a coach, it’s like a Christmas gift.”
In Game 5 against the Kings, back inside the building where his career kicked off, Donskoi helped his new team banish its ghosts of past first-round exits. Less than four minutes into the third period, he bolted into the offensive zone on the left side, pushing the puck along with his off-hand. Gaining a step on defenseman Drew Doughty, Donskoi fended off the presumptive Norris Trophy finalist and, like his stick was a push broom, nudged a pass into the near slot.
As the puck remained untouched in front, Doughty gave Donskoi one last shove, which wound up propelling him faster around the net. While Doughty scrambled to catch up, Donskoi snuck into perfect position and slapped in Burns’ muffed backhander for a 4–3 lead. (Publicly, Burns will say the feed was intentional. Privately, he might admit that he fanned on the pass. Regardless, Donskoi was there in the right position, waiting for the puck and ultimately giving the Sharks their first series win since the lockout season of 2012-13.)
That Donskoi could surge past Doughty along the wall is a recent development. “My skating was so bad a couple years ago,” he says. “I started working on it, so I think my skating is the most important thing, why I can play in this league.” But he has made this last point abundantly clear. Though his even-strength production took a hit when Couture, his usual center, missed significant time earlier in the season, Donskoi finished fourth on the team in 5-on-5 shot attempt differential and eighth in goal differential.
Off the ice, he has adjusted well too. He rents a condo with his girlfriend, whose presence gives him someone to speak with in Finnish. His mother, who works as a hospital cook, and his father remain back home, but they still catch every Sharks game. His English is improving, evidenced in the several group interviews he conducted after practices this week, and the Sharks think he’s ready for more radio hits. Teammates know Donskoi as “a quiet funny guy,” Ward says, someone who loves cars and “to dance too. He’s into the techno house music a bit.”
Donskoi will not confirm the latter assertion, but he’ll happily discuss his passion for the former. In San Jose, he drives a 2010 Audi S4, but the real prize is back in Finland. There lives his 1995 Porsche 993, a sleek two-door gem that was the last of the company’s air-cooled engine series. “That’s the car I love,” he says. “It’s pretty rare these days and the value is going up all the time. It’s a great car.” When it is suggested that he might soon be able to afford new cars, Donskoi replies, “Maybe that’s what I’m going to do if I can [keep playing] in the NHL.”
This seems certain, and he won't sneak up on anyone, either.