Coming into the 2022-23 NHL season, there was a lot of hype around the rookie crop that included first-overall selections Owen Power and Juraj Slafkovsky, along with top prospects Matty Beniers, Marco Rossi, Mason McTavish, and Jack Quinn, all of whom were top-10 picks. It was all but assumed that one of those names would be a top candidate for the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie, but after two weeks of hockey, another name has entered the fray – Ottawa Senators’ center Shane Pinto.
A second-round pick from 2019, fans were initially disappointed that the Senators didn’t go for one of the higher-profile prospects like Arthur Kaliyev or Bobby Brink. But since then, he’s dominated both college and the World Juniors, making him one of the team’s most promising prospects. Now, three seasons after he was drafted, he finally looks ready to take the NHL by storm, and he’s quickly gaining consideration as the best rookie in the NHL right now.
Pinto’s Hot Start is Not Surprising
It’s always a bit of a surprise when a player who was picked after the first round emerges as a top rookie. Since 1999-00, only five players who were picked outside the top 20 have won the Calder Trophy, three of which were goalies, and one was selected 27th overall. Scouts and organizations are much better at identifying top talent than they were before the turn of the millennium, so the best players generally go near the top of the draft. But Pinto is proving that he could be the exception to the rule in a way that we all should have seen coming.
During his two seasons with the University of North Dakota, he was one of the best players in the NCAA. In 2019-20, he was the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s (NCHC) Rookie of the Year and was tied for first among American players at the 2020 World Juniors. In his sophomore campaign, he led North Dakota in goals while also being named the NCHC’s Best Defensive Forward, Forward of the Year, and Player of the Year, as well as a finalist for the NCAA’s Hobey Baker Award.
Then came Pinto’s debut with the Senators, where he played 12 games to finish off the 2020-21 season. In that stretch, he scored a goal and seven points. At that pace, he could have ended an entire season with nearly 50 points, which would have put him second in the rookie scoring race behind the eventual winner, Kirill Kaprizov, who finished as the runaway favourite with 27 goals and 51 points.
The 2021-22 season was supposed to be Pinto’s year, as he made the team out of camp, and by his third game, he already had an assist and was playing over 20 minutes a night. But in the first shift of his fourth game of the season, he was pushed over by San Jose Sharks defenceman Mario Ferraro, causing him to fall into the boards awkwardly and forcing him to leave the game with a shoulder injury. He returned nine games later but re-injured his shoulder in a faceoff, which led to him requiring shoulder surgery that kept him off the ice for a full year.
4 Goals in 4 Games
Many wondered if Pinto would need some time to adjust after missing so much time last season, and some of those concerns were squashed in the preseason after he jumped out to score four goals and seven points in four games. But the preseason is a very different experience than the regular season, and after he put up a disappointing minus-3 and was goal-less on two shots in the team’s 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, many once again wondered if he might need some more time to adjust to the NHL.
Those concerns lasted all of two days, as the next time the Senators stepped on the ice, Pinto was right back to his 2020-21 form. Against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he scored his first goal of the season on the power play, put three shots on goal, and won 63 percent of his faceoffs while playing over 15 minutes. Three days later, he scored his second goal in as many games against the Boston Bruins where he once again won over 60 percent of his faceoffs. Two days after that, he netted his third of the season against the Washington Capitals, then scored his fourth against the Arizona Coyotes while also adding his first assist.
Not only does Pinto’s point streak put him near the top of the NHL’s rookie scoring race, but it’s also a historic mark for the Senators. Since their inaugural 1992-93 season, only three players have posted a four-game goal streak before turning 22 years old. The first to do it was Alexei Yashin as a 20-year-old in 1993-94, and the feat wasn’t repeated until nearly a decade later when 21-year-old Mike Fisher did it in 2001-02. While it wasn’t a streak, Marian Hossa also scored four goals in his first five games in 1999-00.
Being an offensive presence isn’t easy to do from the third line, but the trio of Pinto, Mathieu Joseph, and newcomer Tyler Motte has been firing on all cylinders this season. In five games, they’ve combined for six goals and 12 points, twice the number of goals of the team’s dangerous second line of Josh Norris, Claude Giroux, and Alex DeBrincat, and just two fewer goals than the first line.
“I think a lot of the credit has to go to [Pinto], you see how well he’s played,” said coach D.J. Smith to Sportsnet, “But also a guy like Motte, who just knows how to play the right way. And then [Joseph has] got all that speed. So, it is comforting for sure. They’re the line that’s had the most success five-on-five because, you know, they’re playing the right way. So far, they’ve played the right way the most and the longest and they’ve had the most chances.”
Pinto’s Smart Play at Both Ends of the Ice
Coming into the 2022-23 season, the Senators desperately needed more players to score more goals to be considered a playoff team, which led them to acquire DeBrincat at the 2022 NHL Draft. But they also needed to find some more defensively responsible players. Pinto is the best of both worlds; after five games, he’s Ottawa’s second-best faceoff man and has been a better possession player than Norris while starting nearly two-thirds of his shifts in the defensive end. Had he not struggled in his first game, he likely would rank much higher on the team in terms of defensive point shares and on-ice save percentage, two stats that show his impact as a defensive forward.
Despite only attending a couple of NHL training camps, Pinto has quickly gained Smith’s trust to the point where he can be put on the ice in any situation. Already he’s been utilized on the powerplay and penalty kill, albeit just 40 seconds so far, as well as plenty of ice time when the game is tied. In those high-pressure moments is when he excels the most; three of his goals have come when the game is tied, and his goal against the Capitals ended up being the game-winner.
Providing tons of offence is always fun, but that’s not necessarily Pinto’s goal. After the game against the Capitals, he said, “I mean, yeah, that was that it was definitely – just to play a game, and definitely to help the team. That’s what I want to do coming into this year.” To see him so comfortable already in the NHL is impressive, especially when considering he’s playing a lot of heavy defensive minutes. But, according to TSN Insider Dave Poulin, he has fun playing defence, which is an unusual combination to see in a young player.
Can Pinto Win the Calder?
It’s still very early in the 2022-23 season, and it’s unlikely Pinto can keep up his incredible 33.3% shooting percentage – only seven players finished with a shooting percentage higher than 20 percent last season, and only one had more than 200 shots – but he’s already shown that he can compete with the very best in the NHL. He’s competitive and competent in all areas of the ice, which will ensure he keeps getting opportunities this season, and his chemistry with Motte gives the Senators a surprisingly deadly third line, which takes some pressure off their top units. Pinto’s arrival has been long anticipated, and he’s proving that he was worth all the hype.