When Shane Pinto returned to the Ottawa Senators lineup on Nov. 13, fans had baited anticipation.
He had previously injured his shoulder just two shifts into a game against San Jose the previous month after making himself known in Ottawa's top six, and he was expected to be an intriguing piece of the team's young core.
Instead, just a couple of minutes into the first period, he re-injured his shoulder leaning in for a faceoff and his season was over after five games.
So, call this a redo – and one that could have ended even quicker. After an impressive start to the rookie tournament, he took a puck up in his collarbone, immediately sending him to the change room.
"I was thinking, "What? Are you serious? First game back?" Pinto said with a smile after closing out Ottawa's opening game against Boston.
Luckily, he just missed two shifts before going out and scoring his second of the game in an eventual loss.
Pinto and Co. are now in the midst of training camp, with the Sens looking to take a big step forward in 2022-23 with a promising young core. Pinto is one of those key pieces, putting up an impressive 32 points in 28 games as a sophomore at the University of North Dakota in 2020-21. Had all gone to plan, he'd challenge for a top-six spot with the club last year.
One rookie tournament game is one thing. A full rigorous training camp with eight exhibition games, though, is an entirely different animal. Pinto doesn't have the experience to fall back on, so he'll have to lean a bit on his youthful energy here. Pinto should have no issue cracking the final roster, but finding his place in it is the big challenge here.
Pinto said his shoulder feels good now to do what he did prior to his injury, and that's a promising sign. He describes himself as a two-way centerman that wins faceoffs (stats weren't made available at rookie camp, but he had to have lost about two of them all game) and plays a smart, reliable game.
Pinto has a good frame at 6-foot-2 and just over 190 pounds, allowing him to hold his own against stronger competition. He didn't look out of place in his limited NHL action last year, skating in 18 minutes or more – with a high point of 21:12 against Dallas on Oct. 17 – in his three full games. He only put up one point, but he had a couple of solid looks against Toronto in the season opener and would have eventually figured things out.
Pinto should push the likes of Tim Stutzle and Josh Norris for more ice time this year, and if Pinto looks ready to go by the time the Sens kick things off for real, we could be talking about a potential dark horse Calder Trophy candidate.
Pinto's former North Dakota teammate, Jake Sanderson, might have something to say about that, but the Sens added some extra scoring help on the wings this summer in Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux to help spark more offensive opportunities. They might not be full-timers on a line with Pinto, but this is an Ottawa team trending in the right direction, and Pinto's prowess as an all-around center on a team with a few middlemen to work with could allow for some interesting combinations.
Pinto knows how to shoot the puck, and while he's a solid passer, his ability to send a shot wherever he wants was what made him such a dangerous goal-scorer in the NCAA. It wasn't uncommon for him to score more goals than assists in a season in the years leading up to turning pro and a 20-goal rookie season definitely isn't out of the question.
If Pinto starts slow, however, that won't be too surprising. It's hard for a young player to miss so much time in what's supposed to be a considerable development year, but Pinto said missing the season was a considerable learning experience.
"It humbled me and honestly just made me appreciate the game so much more," Pinto said. "It was taken away from me and now I'm just grateful to be back."
Now that he is back, let's see what the real Shane Pinto is capable of.