OTTAWA – Eight weeks ago, Canmore-raised NHLer Jacob Bernard-Docker got nasty news that every player hates hearing.
A top prospect for the Ottawa Senators, the 23-year-old defenceman was positioned to finally crack the team’s roster following years of gradual development through its farm system.
Bernard-Docker inked a new contract in the off-season with the Sens, bulked up with eight pounds of muscle, and had gained some much-needed confidence at the NHL level in 19 games last season – the most he’s played in a single season so far.
It seemed as if the Senators were committed to moving forward with the talented, well-rounded defenceman until the club unexpectedly placed the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NHL draft on waivers Oct. 2.
As a result of salary cap issues due to some ugly mismanagement, the right-handed defenceman was demoted to the farm team in Belleville after clearing waivers where he could have been snatched by other NHL clubs. It was an awkward time in the nation's capital that eventually led to the dismissal of general manager Pierre Dorion shortly after.
Though the Canmore kid was now trying to work out of a bad situation.
“My attitude was that I need to prove people wrong and show them that they made the wrong choice sending me down,” said Bernard-Docker. “I have a lot of belief in my own game. I think that was mainly my attitude [toward the situation].”
If there’s one constant in professional sports, opportunities are only a phone call away and Bernard-Docker didn’t have to wait long for one.
The Sens blueline was devastated by injuries last month, with three regulars going down, giving Bernard-Docker a one-way ticket back to the NHL.
It certainly wasn’t less pressure for the fourth-year pro returning to the big club, but he was riding with newfound motivation.
“It definitely lights a little fire under you,” he said. “I just tried to keep a level head, I’m hoping that that this opportunity now is hopefully showing that I don’t wanna go back [to the farm team].”
Now, eight weeks removed from being waived, Bernard-Docker has given the Sens a good problem to have, with players set to return from injury.
In 13 games this season, one major stat catching attention is Bernard-Docker’s 40 blocked shots, which leads the Sens and is 39th in the league, ahead of the likes of Calgary Flames’ gritty blueliner Rasmus Andersson and Toronto Maple Leafs’ cornerstone defenceman Morgan Rielly.
Not for the faint of heart, eating 100-km/h slappers is gutsy, but something Bernard-Docker said is good for the team.
“Blocking shots just kind of comes with the territory, especially on the [penalty kill],” he said. “It doesn’t feel good, but I think it's worth it. If it’s gonna lead to opportunities and obviously be out there for less goals against.”
Bernard-Docker is averaging 17:37 minutes of ice time per game and 22.92 shifts, with only four minutes spent in the sin bin. He has two helpers and a -5 plus/minus.
Despite not chasing Bobby Orr’s record for most points by a defenceman in a season, Bernard-Docker’s recent stretch of games and the conservative style he brings to the back end is impressing coaches and staff.
“He’s defending and he’s defending hard and I think he continues to work on his puck play, sharing pucks, coming out of the D-zone, you know, obviously he’s willing to give his body up, the shot-blocking, and his penalty killing has helped us,” Senators head coach D.J. Smith told reporters Nov. 24.
“It takes time for these young D. I think so much is made when a guy doesn't make it right away and people want to see him in the line-up. It takes time and you want to put the guy in a spot to succeed. Right now he plays really well with [Jakob Chychrun] and we hope it continues.”
The big thing for Bernard-Docker is consistency, he said.
This past summer, the Senators inked the Canmore defenceman to a two-year, $1.61 million contract.
The man behind it, former Sens general manager Dorion, said JBD has “readily proved himself to be a reliable defender by playing on the penalty kill and in key matchup roles.”
As Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot is set to return from injury, there is uncertainty with the line-up moving forward now that Bernard-Docker is making a case for himself at the NHL level.
For the 23-year-old Canmore-born and raised athlete, he said we’ll see what happens.
“I think there's always some uncertainty in this job, you know, there's always moving pieces,” Bernard-Docker said. “As cliché as it sounds, I can't control any of that, so I'm just trying to really put my best foot forward every game.”