With no playoffs on the horizon, the Ottawa Senators continue to focus on their future.
Defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker and centre Shane Pinto are expected to be significant pieces of that picture. Within hours of each other on Thursday, Bernard-Docker and Pinto agreed to three-year, entry-level contracts with the team that drafted them. The pair have been teammates with the Division I University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks the past two seasons.
On an April Fools’ Day that would see the Senators fall meekly to the Montreal Canadiens 4-1, this was nevertheless a great day for the organization, getting Pinto and "JBD" signed.
Bernard-Docker, 20, is the veteran of Ottawa’s four UND prospects and joins Ottawa after three seasons at North Dakota. Pinto, a junior, is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, the winner of which will be announced next week.
Together they made the long trek from Grand Forks, N.D., on Friday – four hours by car to Minneapolis for the flight to Ottawa, and then both will quarantine in a suburban hotel for seven days before joining the Senator’s NHL roster.
For Bernard-Docker, the first to sign and then made available on a Zoom call to Ottawa media, the NHL contract made him think back to the excitement of getting drafted in the first round, 26th overall, in 2018.
"It’s something I’ve been dreaming of my whole life," Bernard-Docker said about turning pro. "Hopefully this is just the start, and all the hard work has paid off but I still have a lot to prove and I'm just super thankful for everyone who has helped me get here."
JBD said his parents, Rolanda and Thomas, were even more excited than he was when the deal got done. Family and friends busting, as one could imagine.
"Just pure excitement from everyone," Bernard-Docker said. "Couldn’t be happier to be taking this next step."
As thrilled as he is to join an NHL team, Bernard-Docker said it is bittersweet to leave a college home like UND, where the players, coaches and staff created a supportive, winning culture.
"What makes North Dakota so special is not the facilities," JBD said. "It's not the huge rink. It’s the fans, the people and just how much everyone cares about you. They want to make you a better person and a better player as well. That’s something I’ll never forget."
Pinto, 20, it could be argued, is the most improved player since his draft day. A skinny, strapping kid out of Franklin Square, N.Y., Pinto was a 32nd-overall pick by Ottawa in 2019.
With the help of head coach Brad Berry and his staff at UND, Pinto turned himself into a two-way force, scoring one-timers from the "Ovie" spot and becoming a strong defensive centre as well. I will never forget Berry’s quote to sportsnet.ca before this season began, talking about Pinto and his obsession with winning faceoffs. He was making the point that Pinto takes great pride in getting the puck and possessing it.
"We do a lot of faceoff work with centres and wingers jumping in, and I sometimes worry he’s going to rip someone’s arms off because for Shane, it’s for keeps, even in practice," Berry said.
Pinto had a faceoff percentage of 61.9 per cent. He scored seven power-play goals. As an astounding measure of Pinto’s discipline, consider that this bruising forward took his penalty minutes from 46 to four from his freshman to junior season. That’s one way to ensure more ice time.
Berry says that Pinto is not only adept at one-timing pucks, but also dishing the puck with a cross-seam pass when that is the appropriate play.
"He can really discern when to shoot and when to pass," Berry said.
Their last college game together was beyond memorable, a five-overtime loss to the University of Minnesota Duluth on the weekend. Jake Sanderson, a UND defenceman and Ottawa’s top prospect at the school, hit the post just moments before Minnesota scored the winning goal.
The next day, Bernard-Docker wondered if he had dreamed the whole thing – UND scoring two late goals to force overtime; Minnesota having a goal called back due to an offside call; the assorted goal posts hit that could have ended the game differently.
"There were just so many emotions in that game, and definitely that was a tough one to lose, but that’s something in 10, 20 years I’m going to look back on and be thankful I was just part of that experience," Bernard-Docker said. "It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before so it was a pretty cool thing to be a part of."
JBD, six-foot-one and 190 pounds, is pencilled in as a future top-four D-man for Ottawa – a solid, all-around defenceman best known for his defensive play.
Pinto, a six-foot-three, right-shot centre, had 15 goals and 17 assists for 32 points in 28 games for the Fighting Hawks this season.
Senators head coach D.J. Smith had a chance to comment on the Bernard-Docker signing prior to the Montreal game.
"As a finished product, he can be a shutdown guy that can also pop passes, get up in the rush," Smith said of Bernard-Docker. "He’s a good skater and he’s the kind of guy that can play in all situations.
"Top-four guys in this league are hard to come by and we believe he’s that guy."
In Pinto, Smith is probably seeing a second- or third-line centre of the future. Responsible defensively with a scoring touch.
Both arrive in the NHL as college award winners. This week, Pinto was named among the three finalists for college player of the year. He also became the first player in National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) history to be recognized as its "forward of the year" and best defensive forward.
On March 10, Bernard-Docker was awarded the NCHC “defensive defenceman” of the year honour. Bernard-Docker produced 60 points in three UND seasons, including three goals and 15 assists this past season.
"Jacob represents another key component of our future," Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said in a statement. "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."
Bernard-Docker demonstrated his leadership when he joined teammate Jasper Weatherby by taking a knee during the U.S. national anthem prior to the first game of the season, a statement in support of racial equality and justice.
Dorion was equally effusive in his praise of Pinto, who has made that 32nd-overall pick look like a steal to this point.
"Shane should be very proud of what was an exceptional collegiate career," Dorion said of his prized centre man. "He’s a player with a very high work ethic who demonstrates a strong ability to play in all three zones. He was an elite faceoff performer at UND who possesses a great shot, including a deceptive one-timer and knack for scoring from both in tight and from a distance."
With Bernard-Docker and Pinto signed, the Senators still have other UND prospects –
defenceman Sanderson, selected fifth overall in 2020, and Tyler Kleven, a 44th-overall pick in the same draft. While the smooth-skating Sanderson could likely jump in to help the Senators right away, Kleven, a big, raw D-man, will need a bit more time.
Sanderson was the best player on the ice in UND’s 5OT thriller, leading his team with eight shots on goal.
It will help Pinto and Bernard-Docker to arrive as a tandem. They already have some connections in the room based on being selected by Ottawa two and three years ago. Messages from Senators alternate captain Brady Tkachuk, a fellow 2018 first-rounder, meant a lot to Bernard-Docker.
"I got drafted with Brady that year and he’s done a really good job of keeping me in the loop, if I ever need anything or want to talk about Ottawa or anything," Bernard-Docker says.
"I had a few guys text me. (Thomas) Chabot and Colin White also texted me. That meant a lot that those guys took time out of their days to message me and say congratulations (on signing). They said if I need anything, I could contact them. Pretty cool."
Bernard-Docker says that while he will join the Senators as a confident player, he is also willing to listen and adapt to whatever role the coaching staff has for him.
Both players will be biding their time and training off-ice for the next seven days.
"Not being on the ice is a little different so I’m probably going to have a little bit of rust when I first step on the ice," Bernard-Docker says. "But I think I’m going to be so excited and pumped up I’ll forget about not playing for seven days."