Who are the potential early NHL signings from this year's UND team?
At least six Fighting Hawks players figure to have decisions ahead.
During the last 20 years of UND hockey, the number of early NHL signings has sometimes been an indicator for success the following season.
When UND hasn't lost anyone to early NHL signings -- something that's been rare -- it has followed up with some pretty good seasons.
It has only happened three times during the last two decades.
Once was before the 2010-11 season, when a Matt Frattin-led UND squad rolled to a 30-win season.
Another time was last summer, when Ludvig Hoff signed a deal in his native Norway, but nobody gave up eligibility to sign an NHL contract.
UND cruised through 2019-20 with a 26-5-4 record, a Penrose Cup championship and the No. 1 ranking in the Pairwise when the season abruptly ended due to concerns about the coronavirus.
Now, the offseason has arrived.
Could UND get through a second-straight summer without an early NHL signing?
There are several UND players who are expected to have decisions on whether to stay or go. Here's a rundown of the players most likely to gather NHL offers:
1. Matt Kiersted, jr, defenseman, undrafted free agent
Kiersted gained more and more attention as the season progressed, sending scouts from nearly every NHL team to watch him play.
It's not only scouts who came to watch, but also some heavy hitters. Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill traveled to watch Kiersted play against the U.S. Under-18 Team in Plymouth, Mich., in December. Keith Tkachuk of the St. Louis Blues and Mike Futa of the Los Angeles Kings also saw Kiersted play in St. Cloud.
New York Islanders scout David Conte, who used first-round draft picks on UND's David Hale, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac and a second-rounder on Mike Commodore while with the New Jersey Devils, also watched Kiersted.
Because Kiersted is an undrafted free agent, any NHL team could sign him, and there will be no shortage of opportunities for the junior defenseman.
Kiersted finished the season with six goals and 29 points in 33 games. Only Minnesota Duluth's Scott Perunovich and Denver's Ian Mitchell had more points than Kiersted among National Collegiate Hockey Conference defensemen.
If Kiersted returns, he would be in the mix to be team captain along with classmate Jordan Kawaguchi.
2. Jacob Bernard-Docker, so, defenseman, Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators are having a poor season as expected. Only one team in the NHL has fewer points. Bad teams want to get their top assets in their system and under team control.
Bernard-Docker, who was drafted in the first round at No. 26 overall in 2018, is Ottawa's highest-drafted asset who is unsigned. Therefore, the Senators will likely make it a top priority to sign him.
Bernard-Docker, whose development has been excellent the last three years, does not appear ready to step into an NHL role yet, though. That's an especially difficult assignment for a young defenseman and Bernard-Docker is still only 19 years old. Even so, Ottawa will likely try to sign him and have him play with AHL Belleville for a year.
If he comes back, Bernard-Docker will play huge minutes as a junior in all situations on UND's top pairing. He could be in line to wear a letter, too.
3. Jordan Kawaguchi, jr, forward, undrafted free agent
When you have the type of season that Kawaguchi did, you're going to draw looks from everywhere.
Kawaguchi finished as the second-leading scorer in the nation with 45 points in 33 games. He trailed only Providence's Jack Dugan, who finished with 52 points. Dugan is a Vegas Golden Knights draft pick, meaning Kawaguchi had more points than any free agent in college hockey.
The other top free-agent scorers in college hockey were Minnesota State senior Marc Michaelis (44 points), Boston College senior Julius Mattila (42), Maine senior Mitchell Fossier (42) and Arizona State junior James Sanchez (40).
NHL teams appear unanimous on Kawaguchi's skill level, playmaking ability and puck protection skills. They are elite. Some teams want Kawaguchi to improve his skating before signing, though.
If Kawaguchi returns, there's the possibility that his entire line -- along with classmates Collin Adams and Grant Mismash -- could be back, and Kawaguchi would be a strong candidate to be team captain along with Kiersted.
4. Shane Pinto, fr, forward, Ottawa Senators
While Bernard-Docker is Ottawa's highest-drafted, unsigned player, Pinto is No. 2 on that list. Again, teams like getting their top prospects under team control, so don't be surprised if the Senators make a run at Pinto, who was the No. 32 overall pick in 2019.
Pinto had an outstanding rookie season, tying for a team-high 16 goals and tallying 28 points in 33 games. But at age 19, there's still development to go before reaching Ottawa, and Pinto may opt to do that at UND for another season instead of Belleville.
5. Collin Adams, jr, forward, New York Islanders
It would not be a surprise if the Islanders make a run at Adams, who was taken in the sixth round in 2016.
For starters, he's coming off of a career year. Adams had 12 goals and 28 points in 35 games after tallying 15 points in his first two seasons combined. But perhaps the bigger issue for the Islanders is that if Adams comes back for his senior season, he would have the option of becoming a free agent on Aug. 15, 2021.
While not many college players are using that route to hit free agency, there have been enough that teams are wary of letting their draft picks get to their senior seasons.
Adams also has good reason to return: He has set himself up to have a huge senior season and his entire line could be back together for one more go-around. Adams could be one of the most explosive players in the NCHC next season.
6. Grant Mismash, jr, forward, Nashville Predators
Mismash, a second-round pick in 2017, is in the same boat as Adams.
The Predators may want to sign him to avoid Mismash having the opportunity to hit free agency after his senior season. But despite having a strong junior season, his point total (20) wasn't overwhelming. Mismash runs the risk of being buried in Nashville's system from the start if he signs now.
Like Kawaguchi and Adams, he could potentially re-join UND's top line, play major minutes, have a game in Nashville anyway (UND plays Penn State in Bridgestone Arena in October) and put himself in much better position to begin his pro career.
UND’s early NHL signings by year (since 2000)
2018: Christian Wolanin (jr), Shane Gersich (jr)
2017: Tucker Poolman (jr), Brock Boeser (so), Tyson Jost (fr)
2016: Troy Stecher (jr), Paul LaDue (jr), Keaton Thompson (jr), Luke Johnson (jr), Nick Schmaltz (so)
2015: Jordan Schmaltz (jr), Zane McIntyre (jr)
2014: Rocco Grimaldi (so)
2013: Derek Forbort (jr)
2012*: Brock Nelson (so)
2011: Jason Gregoire (jr), Brett Hextall (jr)
2008: T.J. Oshie (jr), Taylor Chorney (jr)
2007: Jonathan Toews (so), Brian Lee (so)
2006*: Drew Stafford (jr), Matt Smaby (jr), Jordan Parise (jr), Travis Zajac (so)
2005: Matt Greene (jr), Brady Murray (so)
2004: Brandon Bochenski (jr), Zach Parise (so)
2003: David Hale (jr)
2002: Ryan Bayda (jr)
2001: Bryan Lundbohm (jr), Travis Roche (so)
2000: Mike Commodore (jr)
* In 2019, Ludvig Hoff signed in Norway. In 2012, Aaron Dell signed a CHL deal. In 2006, Rastislav Spirko signed in Slovakia.