We have reached that time in the sports impasse when we need to find topics that serve as a distraction to daily pandemic news as well as a reminder that there will be brighter days ahead.
Sports will matter again at some point.
Teams, rosters and prospects will strive to pick up where they left off, even if the normal ebbs and flows of every season is off kilter.
The best players will still be the best.
And prospects in the pipeline will continue to stimulate fan bases with what the future might hold. More than ever, we all long for that future when such simple pleasures as development camps and rookie training sessions are underway again.
With that in mind, we take a look at five of the most interesting Ottawa Senators prospects. Not the top five, not the five most imminent NHLers (that would start with Drake Batherson and run through several other AHL Belleville Senators teammates).
What we are listing here, in a highly subjective way, are five prospects we find intriguing. In some cases, we haven’t seen as much of them because they are not as far advanced in the development process. There is one AHL player on the list because he has progressed at a rate no one could have foreseen after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery just a little more than a year ago.
C – Josh Norris, 20
GP: 59 | G: 31 | A: 30 | Pts: 61
Belleville Senators (AHL)
Draft: San Jose, 19th, 2017
With the picks and players acquired from the San Jose Sharks in the massive trade for Erik Karlsson on Sept. 13, 2018, Norris got a chance to fly under the radar. There were no outsized expectations for the young centre because he had played so little hockey in 2019.
Consider that, just last June, Norris was kept out of contact drills at Ottawa’s development camp. In September, he was cleared to play in the Senators’ rookie tournament, which marked his first game of any kind since playing for Team USA in the World Junior Championships the previous winter. After just one-and-a-half seasons of experience at the University of Michigan and a lost half-season, all Norris did as an AHL rookie was finish third in the AHL scoring race in goals and points (tied).
The B-Sens’ scoring leader is intriguing for a number of reasons. Unlike many of his teammates — Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Vitaly Abramov, Rudolf Balcers, Erik Brannstrom etc. — Norris didn’t get much of a look in the NHL this season, with just three games played. Yet, head coach DJ Smith gave him front-line minutes in those games, nearly 18 minutes per night, and there were flashes of his play-making vision and sneaky-dangerous shot on display.
Can the 20-year-old thrive at the NHL level as he has as a rookie pro? Can he step in as soon as next season? The former Sharks first-rounder is going to be an interesting player to watch.
D – Jacob Bernard-Docker, 19
GP: 32 | G: 7 | A: 18 | Pts: 25
North Dakota Fighting Hawks (NCAA)
Draft: Ottawa, 28th, 2018
6-1, 195 lbs.
Bernard-Docker, drafted 26th overall (Ottawa’s second first-round pick, 2018), is a great example of how a player can excel without playing major junior. ‘JBD,’ as he is known, became the best defenceman in Alberta provincial junior hockey with the AJHL Okotoks Oilers and rode that to a Division 1 scholarship at North Dakota. As a freshman in 2018-19, this right-shot defenceman became a key starter and then a sophomore leader at highly ranked ND — first-unit power play, first-unit PK.
He evolved into a major role on Team Canada’s gold-medal world-junior roster, moving up to the top pairing. As the tournament wore on, head coach Dale Hunter increasingly relied on Bernard-Docker in all situations, including late in the final, preserving a one-goal lead.
Watching JBD deliver a massive open-ice hit on Russia’s Kirill Marchenko reminded us that Okotoks is a Siksikáí’powahsin word meaning “rock.” And that fairly describes Bernard-Docker, a reliable, two-way defenceman who is going to get an opportunity to develop as a pro, perhaps as early as next fall with the B-Sens.
C – Shane Pinto, 19
GP: 33 | G: 16 | A: 12 | 28
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Draft: Ottawa, 32nd, 2019
6-3, 195 lbs
This isn’t the first time the Senators have had multiple prospects at the same school. Think back to Ohio State University six and seven years ago when teammates Ryan Dzingel and Max McMormick caught the eye of Ottawa scouts as late-round picks in 2011.
Though Bernard-Docker and Shane Pinto were drafted one year apart, they have quickly developed a chemistry, often combining to score goals, especially on the power play, with JBD as quarterback and Pinto the shooter. As a freshman in 2019-20, Pinto led North Dakota with five power-play goals, and was tied for the team lead in goals with 16. That helped earn the right-hand centre a place among the NCHC rookie-of-the-year finalists.
The Senators went off the board to draft Pinto early in the second round, based on his USHL play. Pinto loves to shoot the puck (91 shots, third on his team) is physical (second in penalty minutes, with 46) and leads his team in major penalties, with two. His faceoff numbers are remarkable for a college freshman — 61.1 per cent as regular-season play ended, and ultimately the season.
Like Bernard-Docker, Pinto had a strong world-junior tournament, but with a different nation: USA. He finished with four goals and seven points in five games.
Considering he doesn’t turn 20 until November, Pinto could use another strong college season, although he already has pro size and instincts.
D – Lassi Thomson, 19
GP: 39 | G: 7 | A: 6 | Pts: 13
Ilves Loan, Liiga
Draft: Ottawa, 19th, 2019
6-0, 182 lbs
After drafting a ‘Lassi(e)’ and a ‘Pinto’ in rather quick succession last June, the Senators were bombarded with animal jokes on social media. Nobody is laughing anymore as these prospects continue to develop.
After a strong 2018-19 season (17 goals, 41 points) with the WHL Kelowna Rockets, Thomson returned to Finland in 2019-20 to play against grown men, except for his sojourn to the WJC. Thomson was named captain of the Finnish juniors and played seven games, recording one assist, for a persistent Finnish team.
A smooth skater, Thomson provides another right-hand shot out of the defence position, and what a shot it is — a boomer from the point that belies Thomson’s slight build.
Thomson himself didn’t expect to get drafted this high, but the Senators scouts liked the way he adapted quickly to the North American game as an 18-year-old in junior, and is the type of skating, puck-moving D-man that every pairing in the NHL must have to be competitive.
It’s early in the going, Thomson still has to prove himself as a North American pro, but with his skill set and shot, he looks like he could be part of a young future D-corps that includes Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom and Bernard-Docker.
G – Mads Sogaard, 19
GP: 31 | W: 21 | L: 13 | OT: 2 | GAA: 2.53 | SV%: .908
Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
Draft: Ottawa, 37th, 2019
6-7, 200 lbs
We started this exercise talking about intriguing prospects in the Senators organization. While they are deep in goaltenders at the NHL and AHL level, few are as intriguing as Sogaard, by virtue of his size.
With 6-6 Anders Nilsson likely starting next season as Ottawa’s No. 1 goalie, this even larger specimen looms in the system.
Because of their less predictable development, goalies tend to go lower in the draft. Last June, American Spencer Knight became just the seventh goaltender to be chosen in the first round over the past decade. The Senators wasted no time getting the second-rated goalie available, Sogaard, in round two.
As a Medicine Hat rookie in 2018-19, Sogaard was sensational, 19-8-2 with a .921 save percentage. This season, he has been slightly less consistent, but was coming on strong. As recently as March 2, Sogaard was named WHL goaltender of the week with a 2-0-0 performance, 1.00 goals-against and .947 save percentage.
Scouts love Sogaard’s net presence, rebound control and his agility for a big man. Comparisons have been made to Nashville’s Pekka Rinne.
Organizationally, the Senators are deep at this vital position: with Nilsson and Craig Anderson (a pending UFA considering retirement), plus Marcus Hogberg, Joey Daccord and Filip Gustavsson close to readiness. In junior, Kevin Mandolese had a sensational season with Cape Breton of the QMJHL — 26 wins and a .925 save percentage. The internal goalie competition will be fascinating to watch over the next few years.