9. Jake Sanderson (Last Year: NR, Reader Rank: 7)
With their second pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, the Ottawa Senators added to their already-deep pool of left-handed defense prospects by taking Whitefish, Montana native Jake Sanderson fifth overall. While it could be argued that Ottawa didn't address the most pressing needs of their organization with their early selections, today we're focusing on the quality of the player, not the pick.
Sanderson was widely considered to be the best player coming out of the U.S. National Team Development Program, as well as the best left-handed defensemen in the draft. This consensus wasn’t the case early in the 2019-20 season, as Sanderson was one of the biggest risers leading up to the October draft. While his 29 points in 47 games last season looks rather underwhelming for a fifth overall pick, don’t be fooled, as his impact can’t be measured on the scoresheet alone.
At the University of North Dakota, Sanderson joined a talented blue line featuring fellow Sens prospects Jacob Bernard-Docker and 2020 44th overall pick Tyler Kleven. Both of his teammates have also gotten off to good starts. Sanderson shone, with three points in three games, including his first collegiate goal.
Jake Sanderson rips his 1st career NCAA goal on the PP! pic.twitter.com/owYmcxhXnU— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) December 5, 2020
What stands out when you watch Sanderson, though, is just how smooth he’s looked in his short NCAA career as a freshman. In the following sequence, he shows off his ability to manage the puck in his own end, something the Sens desperately need in their system.
Sanderson may not fit the mold of elite offensive defensemen such as John Klingberg, Victor Hedman, and Cale Makar, but his skating and puck skills are nothing to sneeze at. For a “shutdown” defenceman to be considered a top-pairing guy in the NHL, a combination of high-end playmaking and consistency with zone exits and entries is crucial. Sanderson’s got both of these in spades. Take this stretch pass to Riese Gaber, for example.
As for his transitional play, we can refer to Colin’s draft profile of Sanderson to find that according to tracking data from Mitch Brown for draft-eligible players, Sanderson ranked first in zone entries with possession of the puck, and fifth in zone exits.
Here’s another tidbit from that data: Jake Sanderson broke up 50% of controlled zone entries by the opposition while he was on the ice, better than any other tracked player. Second place went to Daemon Hunt, with 43.8%. There were a lot of special players available at the recent draft, but don’t let anybody tell you Sanderson isn’t one of them.
While we’re on the subject of defense, the 6’1 Sanderson brings a physical presence to the ice, but the key to his near-unmatched one-on-one defense is his skating - more specifically his gap control. The space you leave in front of attacking forwards is crucial. Give up too much and they’ll have more time and space to work with, and keeping the gap too close will give them an opening to quickly move around you and break towards the net.
I came across this article written by Jack Han, a hockey writer, and analyst with prior experience in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office. His work focuses on evaluating players in unique ways, in this case, he draws comparisons between hockey defensemen and fighter pilots; both need to identify the angle and speed necessary to shut down — or shoot down, their opponents. In the linked article, Han compares the gap control of two defenders, Seth Jones and Jared Spurgeon, defining the term "check attachment" as the ability to steadily close the gap between defender and attacker, and kill the play. I recommend reading the article in full, but I'll link the clips of the two defencemen below.
Han states that the key to Spurgeon's superior glide is that he keeps his weight on the front of his skates, rather than the back. Jones doesn't do this as well, and by increasing his gap to compensate, Nathan MacKinnon (at the 0:34 mark) is able to take the offensive zone rather easily.
So, how does Sanderson compare to these two? Let’s take a look at some game footage provided by Yanic St. Pierre, who some may also know as Draft Dynasty.
You’ll notice that like Spurgeon, Sanderson puts weight on the front of his skates, which helps him shut down opposing forwards on the rush. He also pivots at the ideal time, making use of his reach to knock the puck away from anyone posing a threat to move around him. Even though he’s physical, he doesn’t carelessly chase a hit. Whenever he pinches, it’s usually to knock the puck back with his stick. A crushing body check is his finishing move.
Three games into his freshman year, Sanderson (and Kleven!!!) headed off to the World Juniors, in which both hope to make an impact for Team USA. As far as what comes after, it’s up in the air whether or not Sanderson will take part in his sophomore season with UND, but with a glut of solid players on the left point already, Ottawa can afford to take their time with his development, as he works to prove he’s worthy of the fifth overall selection the Senators used on him.
Jake Sanderson draws in 4 (!) Denver players before setting up the tying goal, recording his 1st NCAA assist in the process! High praise from the announcers on the play.— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) December 5, 2020
Is Sanderson legit the best defenceman in college hockey? Stay tuned to find out. #NoDakSens pic.twitter.com/rlXl7yOiYX
Not a bad start, Jake. Not bad at all.