Every year the NHL draft sees a handful of players rise over the course of the season. This year we’ve seen the likes Jack Quinn, Seth Jarvis and William Wallinder emerge as likely first round picks, but no one has risen faster to the highest ranks of the 2020 draft than Jake Sanderson.
Jake Sanderson (LD)
|Team||League||Height||Weight||Expected Range||NHL Rank|
|U.S. National U18 Team||USDP||6'1"||185 lbs||8 - 20||#4 (NA)|
The son of Geoff Sanderson, a former NHL forward of 1000+ games, Jake looks to follow in his father’s footsteps but as a left-shot defenceman. A July birthday, he’s one of the youngest players expected to be taken near the top of the draft.
No prospect is currently more divisive than Sanderson, with public sources ranking him anywhere from 3rd overall to outside the first round. He started off the season projected as a likely second round pick, but is now a virtual lock for the top 20. He’s far and away the #1 player coming out of this year’s U.S. National Development Program, which experienced a down year following 2019-20’s historic class that saw seven players taken in the top fifteen.
His rise came in the second half of the season, following a set of strong performances when eyes were on him most. There was the All-American game in January where he had two assists and was named the game’s best player, then the Five Nations Tournament a month later where his seven points tied for the scoring lead.
To cap it off he was awarded the Dave Tyler Junior Player of the Year award as the best player in the USDP. He’ll be taking the college route, committed to play for the University of North Dakota next season — a familiar school for the Sens who’ve drafted no shortage of UND commits in recent history.
Earlier I said that he was a lock for the top 20, which is based on the public consensus. The truth is that based on the bits of evidence we have, NHL scouts are even higher on Sanderson with the potential for him to be taken in the top ten or even top five, hence why we’re covering him in this series. NHL Central Scouting went as far to rank him as the fourth best North American skater in the draft, ahead of forwards Cole Perfetti and Marco Rossi.
The following quote is from Sanderson’s coach Seth Appert, via NHL.com’s Mike Morreale:
“I’d be shocked if Jake Sanderson isn’t selected top 10 in the draft. He plays the game so efficiently, defends so hard and can jump into the play and add offense ... he’s the prototypical modern-age defenseman. I know other defensemen get more notoriety because of the points they put up, but the beauty of Jake Sanderson is the more you watch him, the more you start to appreciate what an unbelievable defender he is.”
It’s clear that Sanderson provides a lot of what NHL teams are looking for, so let’s take a look at his game.
In Appert’s quote he mentions Sanderson as a “modern-age defenceman”, a term that I examined in my profile for Drysdale, so let’s look at Sanderson through the same lens. I boiled down the term into three points:
- Confidence with the puck
- Effectiveness in both transitional play and two-way awareness
- Smooth skating/
I want to start with the second point about his two-way awareness, because that’s by far where Sanderson excels most. Every single report I’ve read on Sanderson has raved about his gap control, as at times he can be flat out unstoppable. He’s not a hulking player at 6’1” and 185 lbs, but his ability to control his body and stick placement to force the opposition off the puck is second-to-none in this draft class.
He’s not afraid to throw the body either, and has been a reliable penalty killer. He’s also strong on his skates, which has helped him lots with his puck control. He works extremely well at just getting the puck from the opposing team and moving it up the ice, with his level of consistency being rare for a prospect his age.
If you need any more convincing that Jake Sanderson is an elite defensive prospect in this draft class, please watch the skating ability displayed in this clip. pic.twitter.com/25x34nEipm— Joey Padmanabhan (@joeypad2) May 5, 2020
The division on Sanderson begins when we start talking about his offence. His creativity and offensive awareness aren’t going to blow anyone away. He doesn’t take many risks with his passes, and while he’s shown improvement in his ability to walk the line and fire off a shot, you won’t find him wreaking the same level of havoc on the opposing team compared to Jamie Drysdale or any of the forwards we’ve profiled to date.
He’s certainly improved in a lot of these areas as the season progressed, as evidenced by his performance at the Five Nations tournament, to a point where he’s setting up more plays and taking more chances with his shot. He’s fantastic at transitioning the puck through the neutral zone (as I’ll break down in detail with data), but don’t expect to see him pulling off flashes of magic inside the blue line.
Sanderson is overall a great skater too, but like his offensive abilities it’s not a level that will blow you away. He has fantastic control over his edges which allows him to make quick and subtle adjustments to break up plays, and has begun to incorporate it more with his movement at the point. His straight line speed has also evolved over the course of the season too, as he can separate away from opposition and lead the team’s zone transitions.
Jake Sanderson with an absolutely gorgeous play from coast to coast pic.twitter.com/aB6Aj0hFqk— Future Scope Hockey (@FSHockeycenter) January 21, 2020
Between his physicality, defensive acumen and skating ability, it’s already clear why Sanderson’s lauded as a high pick. He mostly ticks the boxes of the outlined “new-age defender”, but he also strongly fits the ideal mould of old school scouts who view the physical gusto of hockey as playing “the right way”.
The questions surrounding his offensive abilities are legitimate. But given his raw tools and the direction that he trended this season, there’s potential for improvement down the road.
Sanderson scored 29 points in 47 games this past season (0.62 P/GP) for the USDP’s U18 team, a points-per-game rate that was bested by 2021-eligible defenceman Sean Behrens (0.78) and approached by Luke Hughes (0.58). On the surface it’s a pretty mediocre total for a lauded top-ten pick, and that’s mostly right. It’s tough to gauge given that the USDP doesn’t track ice time, but the program has a tendency to give all of their pairings approximately equal ice time.
It also needs to be considered that Sanderson was playing on a relatively weaker team, especially relative to 2019-20, but that still leaves his closest scoring comparables in the last decade as Brandon Fortunato and Marshall Warren.
His 14 points in 19 USHL games appears to be better, especially as it improved along with his offence in the second half, but as Pick224.com reveals only eight of those were primary points. Using the site’s estimated time on ice, his rate of primary points per 60 minutes (1.23) ranks behind fellow draft-eligible defencemen Eamon Powell (1.27), Christian Jimenez (1.41) and Jacob Truscott (1.67), none of whom are expected to be picked in the first round. His relative GF% of +4.35 is good, but far from the top among 2020-eligible talent.
But there’s a key element I didn’t talk about much in the scouting profile, which is Sanderson’s ability in zone transitions. And there’s a good reason for that — according to available data, Jake Sanderson is the best transitional defenceman in the 2020 NHL draft.
Once again I’ll be referring to Mitch Brown’s microtracking data, for which he’s tracked 12 games of Sanderson this past season. On the side of zone entries Sanderson saw above-average success, although what stood out was the sheer rate at which he carried the puck — his 10.8 zone entries per 60 minutes is nearly twice as high as the USDP’s second most frequent defender (Powell, 5.7 controlled entries per 60).
He equally saw fantastic results with zone exits, as he and Brock Faber were the responsible duo for their team in completing exits under pressure. It’s tough to compare results between leagues (Brown tracks the OHL, QMJHL, WHL and USDP), but Sanderson’s overall volume of transitions ranks fifth among all defencemen in the database.
Going back to the offensive side and moving beyond the point totals, Sanderson also exceeded all his peers as the clear-cut best defenceman in the USDP according to Brown’s models for expected goals and expected primary assists. Not only is he lauded as one of the draft’s most complete defencemen, but his statistical profile shows minimal gaps either.
Possibly the most eye-popping statistic for Sanderson is the rate at which he breaks up the opposition’s zone entries. He was able to break up controlled entries 50% of the time, which although might not seem high at first, it was better than every other player in Brown’s database between all four leagues. Daemon Hunt from the Moose Jaw Warriors is the only other 2020-eligible defenceman to break the 40% mark at 43.8% — Sanderson’s in a league of his own.
Maybe there’s something to be said about how often he has to play defensively, similar to how players always blocking shots typically have terrible results since they’re always having to defend. But all evidence to date shows that if Sanderson finds himself in a position where he needs to get the puck to the other end of the ice, he’ll do it, and with an excellent amount of consistency.
I’ve already dug into the concerns of Sanderson’s offensive abilities in the scouting report, but I feel it’s also worth mentioning some context. Teams are looking to get their hands on the best player available at their draft slot, and given the game-breaking ability that we know is possessed by all the players we’ve covered to date, the biggest question is whether it’s worth passing on that for Sanderson.
There’s a period of development & learning time before most prospects reach the NHL, so the skills that are the hardest to teach — offensive awareness, creativity with the puck and fast-paced decision-making — inherently become the most valuable. Although Sanderson excels on the defensive side of the game, abilities like breaking up plays and reading defensive systems are traits where prospects tend to show more improvement down the road. It could make Sanderson’s middle-of-the-road offensive instincts a bigger concern than Perfetti’s defensive deficiencies, for example.
Sanderson has occasionally been referred to by Sens fans as the Brady Tkachuk of the draft — the ‘safe’ pick who some team is bound to reach on. While the Tkachuk comparison isn’t apt for reasons we’ve reflected on before, it’s still something that teams need to be wary of when selecting the upside they want to work with. His current toolkit is certainly projectable to the big leagues. But the top of the draft is where teams find franchise-changing talent, and that’s where Sanderson’s current projection falls short.
High-end defencemen are few and far between in this draft class, which on its own makes Sanderson an extremely coveted player. As a left shot defenceman, Sanderson would sit behind Thomas Chabot and Erik Brännström on the Senators’ depth chart of young defencemen, but he’d still be a welcome addition to the prospect pool where he could potentially join some of their other prospects at North Dakota.
Between his untouched ability at zone transitions to his defensive acumen, there’s a lot to love about Sanderson’s game. But in a draft class this deep, the decision on spending a high pick could be a tough one.
“In the defensive zone, Sanderson is tough to beat. If you are skating up the ice with the puck, Sanderson will track you, give you little room and will utilize his stick to steal the puck away from you. Not only does he possess the ability to provide a strong barricade and secure the puck, but he is also capable of booming open ice body checks.”
Sanderson was the best defender I saw this season among draft-eligible players and arguably among all NHL prospects. His gap play is elite. As his coach Seth Appert said, he “eats people up” with how well he defends neutral zone rushes.”
“Puck control is part of the reason Sanderson succeeds as an all-round defenseman. Using his frame, skating, and hockey sense, it’s hard to knock the puck off his stick when he picks it up. He is able to dodge the opposition and skate up the ice all while keeping the puck in his control. Having this ability facilitates many other aspects of Sanderson’s game.”
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