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North Dakota's Big Four: So Now What?

With four prospects playing prominent roles on the UND men’s hockey team, Sens Nation likely watched more NCAA hockey this year than ever before. Fans were along for the ride from draft night when Ottawa bolstered its Fighting Hawks connections, selecting Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven, to their journey through the World Juniors on Team USA’s blueline. They were tuned in when UND won the Penrose Cup (the NCHC Conference Championship), and flooded ballot boxes to get Shane Pinto into the top 3 for Hobey Baker voting. And, for those with the stamina, they watched deep into the night as UND and Minnesota Duluth battled for 5 overtimes, setting an NCAA record for longest game in tournament history ending in heartbreaking fashion for the boys in green and white.

Disappointing as it may be for the players on the team, from a Senators perspective, now is when the fun really begins. Ottawa’s two biggest needs all year long have been blue line support, and quality play from their centres (especially in the faceoff circle). And it just so happens that their prospects from Grand Forks fit those moulds to a t.

The question now is not if these players are ready to contribute at the professional level, but when. For a team with a track record of, let’s call it “being financially frugal”, there are more factors at play than whether these players are physically and mentally prepared for life in the AHL/NHL. Questions surrounding Melnyk’s willingness to make good on his promise to spend to the cap, not wanting too many prospects to be due new contracts simultaneously, and even the future of Dorion and DJ will play a significant factor in the development paths of Pinto, Sanderson, JBD, and Kleven.

Of the four, Kleven likely has the most obvious solution. Return to school for another year, and move this discussion to the 2022 season. While he’s made tremendous strides, and is looking more and more like an NHL caliber blueliner by the game, he still has some raw spots that could do with another year of polishing in the NCAA ranks.

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Shane Pinto has shown that he has nothing left to prove at the amateur level of the sport. Having already been a member of Team USA’s World Junior Team, and now having two full seasons at UND under his belt, he’s ready for the next phase of his development.

Based on DJ’s track record of making young players “earn it” at every turn, a trip to Belleville is his most likely destination at this point. But given his outstanding year, and prowess in the faceoff circle, it’s not a stretch to think that he could force his way into the conversation at the NHL level fairly quickly.

His versatility is a huge asset, with some scouts comparing him to an Antoine Vermette-style player, capable of seeing ice time in a variety of situations. How quickly fans get to see him with the big boy club likely hinges on what Dorion is able to do at the trade deadline. If he isn’t able to find any trade partners, then we may see the organization take a more cautious approach to his development. But, if PD works the phones and ships out some of those placeholder players, then the Hobey Baker hopeful might debut sooner than you’d think.

Jacob Bernard-Docker is the betting favourite to be the first of the bunch to see the ice at the NHL level. Drafted in 2018, JBD is the de facto elder statesman amongst the four Fighting Hawks. Sens fans have had him pencilled in as a potential partner for Thomas Chabot for some time now. While it remains to be seen whether he has that top pairing ceiling at the NHL level, he is undoubtedly a huge part of the Senators blue line as they enter their “unparalleled success” years. Look for him to get a handful of games under his belt, and then make a late season Senators debut this year. I would be shocked if he wasn’t a roster mainstay by the time the team breaks camp for the 2021-22 season.

Which brings us to Jake Sanderson. For those who haven’t been following his progress at UND this season, rest assured that any thoughts of “did we take the right guy at 5?” have been put to rest. Scouts within the organization, and for rival NHL teams have been blown away by his development. He was noticeably the best player on the ice for the better part of the season, and that’s saying something given how loaded his North Dakota squad was.

Sanderson was inches away from sending his team to the Frozen Four as he rang a shot off the post in the 5th overtime the other night, and was positively electric all game long. For a game that went 142:13 minutes, Sanderson didn’t seem to lose a step in spite of logging a heavy usage rate from the get go. Brad Berry didn’t waste much time in lobbying for Sanderson to come back for another year at UND following the loss to try to finish what he started. But does he really need another year in the NCAA at this point?

I’m far from the only one who thinks there’s not much left for Sanderson to work on outside of the pro ranks. The next step for him is to sign his pro contract and challenge himself against grown men, rather than dominate and be the odds on favourite to win the Hobey Baker next year. Fellow defenseman Jamie Drysdale (taken immediately following Sanderson at #6 by Anaheim) has already made his NHL debut and has 6 games under his belt with the Ducks. But this is where the politics of the Senators organization may dictate his next move more than what the logical development choice might be.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to see the organization choose to have Sanderson play a final year at UND before inking a pro contract to spread out some of their ELCs. This would involve some PR acrobatics by Pierre Dorion putting a spin on the matter to make it seem as though this move would help his development, but there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that the kid is ready to go pro now. Of all four prospects, Sanderson’s future is the murkiest right now as there’s so many directions it could go.

However the organization decides to handle its prized UND talent, we should get some clarity this week. After such an agonizing defeat, it’s only right to give the players a few days off until they start talking about their future. We just saw Montreal ink top prospect Cole Caufield to a 3 year ELC after his Wisconsin Badgers were eliminated by Bemidji State on the 26th, so updates on the North Dakota 4 shouldn’t be far behind.

That makes this year’s trade deadline significant for several reasons. There’s growing speculation that Pierre Dorion may be getting a bit of heat for the team being behind schedule in their rebuild, and though he’s downplayed that for most of the season, his latest cup throwing tirade the other night just poured gasoline all over that fire. His recent NHL level trades haven’t exactly panned out either. Some would argue that by blocking the path to NHL playing time with aging veterans he may actually be doing more harm to the rebuild process than good. So his ability to move some of these pieces at the deadline may be tied to his future in Ottawa.

If he is able to move some of these players, it makes you wonder if he’ll be looking to accumulate more draft capital and prospects (assets he might not be able to use if he gets canned) or whether he’ll be more inclined to take a home run swing at a bigger name player that will be part of the organization’s future. If Dorion chooses the latter, does he choose to include some of the club’s prospects in a package to potentially save his job? Hard to tell, as no one outside of Melnyk has a good read on which direction the front office is headed at any given moment. One thing for certain though, is how busy Dorion is at the deadline will likely dictate how soon Sens fans get a glimpse of the future with some of these prospects.

And based on how they fared at North Dakota this year, that future is extremely bright.

By Kyle Skinner | Sens Nation Hockey


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