Over the last decade, we’ve seen more players blazing a path to the NHL from the NCAA than ever before. It’s not the traditional route, but in the Ottawa Senators‘ case, it basically felt like they had their own academy at the University of North Dakota this season. Commonly known as the #NoDakSens, there were four players linked to the Senators organization that attended the university. Shane Pinto, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Jake Sanderson, and Tyler Kleven all played for UND this season. While their year came to an end dramatically, it’s now time for these players to turn the page and start a new chapter with their pro careers. However, the Sens should take their time in doing so.
The Senators have taken big steps this season in regards to rebuilding and rebranding the culture around this team. As stated many times before, no one was expecting them to make the playoffs this season, let alone be competitive in what was expected to be a stacked Scotia North Division. However, it was still going to be good for the younger and first-time players like Tim Stützle, Josh Norris and company to get their feet wet and comfortable in the NHL. This shouldn’t be the case for every player, though.
What a Year It Was
The UND Fighting Hawks had a fantastic season. They were the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) Penrose Cup and Frozen Faceoff champs, but their final game of the season, the NCAA Midwest Regional Final, went to an unprecedented 5 overtimes against UMD, which is now the longest game in NCAA Tournament history. It wasn’t the way the Fighting Hawks wanted to close the book on this season, but they can still look back at the overall picture, during a global pandemic, and be very proud of their accomplishments.
The next step for some of these players is going to the NHL. It didn’t take very long for general manager Pierre Dorion to make those dreams become reality for some players as defenseman Bernard-Docker was first to put pen to paper and soon followed by Pinto. Both travelled to Ottawa served their seven-day quarantine, and are now ready to hit the ice with the Senators. When it comes to Kleven and Sanderson, they both made the decision to return to UND next season and further their development.
There are plenty of reasons for the organization and the fans to be excited about these two signings. Bernard-Docker’s game grew by leaps and bounds during the course of his three years spent at the university. It was even captured by being named the NCHC’s Best Defensive Defenseman for the past season. He played a total of 95 games in college and was able to record 60 points. Pretty solid for a defensive defenseman who was also a key piece to UND’s stability at the back end and overall success over the last two years.
For Pinto, 2020-21 was a breakout year. After being selected 32nd overall in 2019 by Ottawa, he quickly rose to the top of the list this year when it comes to NHL prospects. He spent just two seasons with the university but cleaned up in the awards department during his final year. Not only did he lead the team with 15 goals in 28 games, but he also walked away with hardware for the league’s Best Defensive Forward, Forward of the Year, Player of the Year, First All-Star Team, First All-American Team and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award (the NCAA’s Top Collegiate Player).
It’s no secret that the Senators have some great potential on their hands with these two players. The organization and the fans will be patiently waiting for them to make their debut, which could come as early as April 14 vs. the Winnipeg Jets at the Canadian Tire Centre or on April 17 on the road against the Montreal Canadiens. With that being said, it still seems a bit early for this to come to fruition, especially during a season that’s all but over for Ottawa.
While we could see both of Bernard-Docker and Pinto in the lineup relatively soon as previously mentioned, what exactly is the rush to get these players suited up? Sure, the number of games remaining on Ottawa’s schedule is dwindling and it would be good for these players to get familiar with the NHL lifestyle, but it seems like they would both better be suited for a fresh start next season.
It hasn’t officially been said that both of these players will stay with the big club for the remainder of the year, but throwing them in the deep end, even though the players and the organization made the right decision, doesn’t seem like the best idea regardless of their future with the club as pointed out by Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith.
“Jacob represents another key component of our future. He’s very mature for his age and already possesses great gap and stick detail within his game. He’s an exemplary leader and a winner who we’re looking forward to seeing in our lineup,” Dorion said when talking about Bernard-Docker. (from ‘SNAPSHOTS: Senators sign UND defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker and centre Shane Pinto’, Ottawa Sun, 1/4/21) When it comes to Pinto, Dorion’s thoughts were pretty much the same.
“Shane should be very proud of what was an exceptional collegiate career. He’s a player with a very high work ethic who demonstrates a strong ability to play effectively in all three zones. He was an elite faceoff performer at UND who possesses a great shot, including a deceptive one-timer, and a knack for scoring from both in tight and from a distance,” Dorion said.
This is some high praise coming from the man that drafted both of these players, and Smith has already said he can see Bernard-Docker playing alongside Thomas Chabot for many years and Pinto will start at centre right away. Pinto had a .620 faceoff winning percentage this season in college, so it makes sense to put him where he’s comfortable. However, I just found that strange seeing as they wouldn’t put Stützle there, even though he played at a higher level in Europe before coming to Ottawa.
I am not saying it’s a mistake to put these guys in the NHL lineup right away if the Sens have a ton of confidence in them, but I would rather them be patient. There are countless examples of players being thrown into the NHL far too early that have ended up being a disaster or at least stunting their development for a couple of years. This season is all but over for Ottawa, so let them get accustomed to the pro game in the American Hockey League.
An example they should look at is just up the road in Montreal in Cole Caufield. He has been getting so much attention for his goal-scoring ability, something the Habs desperately need, but they decided not to rush it. Maybe we see him get the callup before the season’s end and into the playoffs, but that’s the difference between them and Ottawa. While it would be fantastic to see Bernard-Docker and Pinto suit up this season, I think Ottawa would be better suited to be patient, let them learn the pro game, and have a fresh start for 2021-22.