Only 12 games remain until one of the NHL’s strangest seasons comes to a close. But for the Ottawa Senators, it’s been a crucial growing year with plenty of positive steps forward, despite starting 2020-21 on a rough losing streak. They have since ascended to one of the peskier teams in the Scotia North Division, regularly upsetting top teams and making the playoff race all that much closer.
Of course, the Senators have all but officially been eliminated from the postseason, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the season is a write-off. Two top college prospects are set to finish the season with the team and are expected to compete for prominent positions next year. The trade deadline also radically changed the defense, and this will be a crucial time to evaluate exactly what they have on the blue line. So far though, the return is good. Here’s what has been making news this week for the Senators.
Item One: Bernard-Docker Makes NHL Debut
Sometimes, things can change in an instant. Jacob Bernard-Docker, the Senators’ 2018 first-round pick and one of their top defensive prospects, found that out on Wednesday, April 14. He and former University of North Dakota teammate Shane Pinto joined the team after their seven-day quarantine at the beginning of the week and had skated in one full practice but weren’t scheduled to make their NHL debuts until Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens. But on Wednesday morning, Nikita Zaitsev told coach D.J. Smith he wasn’t sure if he could dress for that night’s game, and so Bernard-Docker was given a heads up that his debut may come earlier than expected.
By 6 PM, with the game start nearly upon them, it was confirmed – Zaitsev was out, Bernard-Docker was in. There was no time to be nervous and just enough time to quickly send a text to his parents before the young defenseman stepped out onto the ice to skate the traditional solo lap before facing the Winnipeg Jets for his very first NHL game.
“It was pretty special. I don’t think I was nervous for that part,” Bernard-Docker said. “That was just something that I was trying to soak in. That’s what all the guys have been saying to me, they were just telling me to enjoy it and play with confidence. That solo lap is something I will never forget.” (from ‘GARRIOCH: Jacob Bernard-Docker didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about his NHL debut’, The Guardian, 15/04/21).
Bernard-Docker played well for his first game, logging 15:33 minutes on the ice, blocking two shots, and connecting on one hit. He lined up primarily with the Senators’ top defenseman Thomas Chabot, which definitely didn’t hurt his performance and likely foreshadowed some of the future. But more importantly, he made some strong impressions on his team. His intelligence was immediately obvious, and he looked right at home with the rest of the veterans. The future definitely looks bright for the Senators’ blueline; along with Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, Artyom Zub, and former UND teammate Jake Sanderson, the defense in good hands.
Item Two: Murray Returns to the Net
For the first time in five weeks, Matt Murray was back in the Senators crease. He suffered an upper-body injury in warmups prior to the Senators March 15 game, which at first was expected to be day-to-day, but was soon upgraded to week-to-week, then placed on injured reserve (IR). It was the start of a wild ride for the Senators’ crease, with Joey Daccord going down shortly after and the team scrambling to start a goaltender. Anton Forsberg was claimed off waivers to offer stability, and Filip Gustavsson was recalled from the AHL to fill the role. Both performed admirably in Murray’s absence, but with their starter back, they can breathe a sigh of relief at the returning stability.
Although it ended in a loss, Murray looked strong, stopping 32 of 35 shots and ending with a 0.914 save percentage (SV%). It’s one of his better performances over his past several starts, and it’s also one of the highest shot totals he’s faced since February. He was activated off of IR on April 1 but wasn’t given a start until two weeks later, as the team wanted to take his recovery time slowly to ensure he was back to full health before he returned to full-time duty. It also allowed the team to see their goaltending depth, and hopefully, they continue to give Murray well-needed breaks in order to avoid burning him out this season.
Item Three: Sogaard Signs Entry-Level Deal
The Senators’ goaltending depth was boosted on Monday when they inked Mads Søgaard to a three-year entry-level deal. The 6-foot-7 netminder played the 2020-21 season with the Esbjerg Energy in Denmark’s Metal Ligaen, joining the team in November and appearing in 16 games, where he posted a 10-5-1 record with a 0.922 SV%. While he likely would have liked to finish his junior career with the Medicine Hat Tigers, which he joined in 2018-19, they decided to loan him to his home country so he could continue to grow and develop while the WHL tried to restart their season.
The transfer home seems to have really helped Søgaard. Last season, after establishing himself as the Tigers’ starter, he struggled at times, which allowed rookie backup Garin Bjorklund to take over the starting job for a while. He still finished with 21 wins and a 0.908 SV%, but it was a big downgrade from his 0.921 from 2018-19. The regression likely concerned the Senators, and with so many goalies already in their farm system, they appeared hesitant to sign their 2019 second-round pick. But that all changed in 2020-21; given meaningful minutes and playing against professional players, Søgaard looked like the prospect they knew he could be all along, and once his season ended, the Senators knew they couldn’t let this one get away.
After the signing, general manager Pierre Dorion was glowing in his appraisal of the netminder. “Mads’ development continued to strongly progress while playing overseas in 2020-21. He’s a big, athletic presence in the net and showcases a very competitive style. We’re anticipating a nice transition to North America next season.”
He’ll have an uphill battle to find a starting position in the Senators’ organization. With Forsberg likely gone, that still leaves Murray and Daccord in the NHL, while Gustavsson, Hogberg, and Kevin Mandolese will battle for time in the AHL. He could find minutes with another AHL team via a loan, or he could convince the Senators to part with Hogberg, who will need a new deal at the end of the season. It will be a situation to keep an eye on as the season draws to a close.
Item Four: Brown Suffers Yet Another Injury
At the beginning of the 2020-21 season, fans were hopeful that Logan Brown would finally be given a spot on the Senators’ roster. The 2016 first-round pick, taken 11th overall, has been regarded as one of the team’s top prospects but has only played 29 NHL games since joining the organization in 2017-18, scoring just one goal and nine points. He’s been far more effective in the AHL and has 21 goals and 71 points in 86 games with the Belleville Senators, showing positive growth into a talented center. But he’s been hampered by injuries – he has yet to play a full season in his hockey career. This season was shaping up to be one of the worst, as he was only able to skate in five AHL games so far.
The last thing Brown needed this season was another setback, but that’s just what was reported on Tuesday. Details weren’t given as to what the setback was, but he’s currently listed as day-to-day with the chance of returning to the lineup on Saturday. While this is likely just a minor injury, it still is one more in a long list of setbacks that have hampered Brown’s development. His value has plummeted; whereas he once looked like a top-six center, he now projects to be a depth forward at best based on this season’s production.
There’s no question that Brown still has potential, and he’s shown that, when healthy, he can be an effective offensive threat. But the key is when healthy, and that hasn’t been something he’s shown he can do. It’s allowed energy forwards Mike Amadio and Clark Bishop to sneak ahead of him on the depth chart and earn some NHL games this season while Brown has sat in recovery. With his entry-level deal expiring this season, there’s an argument that he doesn’t fit into the Senators’ future plans anymore, especially with the emergence of Pinto. That could mean a trade, which has long been rumoured, exposed during the expansion draft this summer, or just left unsigned and allowed to walk.
What’s Next for the Senators?
The Senators are next scheduled to play on April 17, and Bernard-Docker’s University of North Dakota teammate Pinto is set to make his debut that night. And while it hasn’t been officially confirmed, it’s likely that Cole Caufield makes his debut with the Canadiens on Saturday night as well, as the forward was recently assigned to the Canadiens’ taxi squad. Both prospects were finalists for the NCAA’s Hobey Baker Award, which Caufield took over Pinto. However, the two didn’t face each other at all this season due to playing in different conferences, so it will be very interesting to see who comes out on top when going head-to-head.
But there are more prospects to keep an eye on. Egor Sokolov scored his sixth goal in six games on Tuesday, which gives him 10 on the season and puts him second among rookie AHL goal-scorers. Angus Crookshank has also been hot since leaving the University of New Hampshire and has eight points in just six games. Defenseman Lassi Thomson scored his first goal of the season, as well, and leads the Belleville Senators’ defense with eight points. With no hope for playoffs this season, all these prospects could earn a call-up over the next month if they continue to perform.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.