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Enter Sandman: Is it time for Jake Sanderson to turn pro?

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After a dominant finish to his season, there’s reason to believe that the team’s star rearguard may be NHL ready. Should he make the jump?

Canada v United States: Gold Medal Game - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

With the Ottawa Senators on the verge of finishing four straight seasons as a bottom-five team, everyone’s attention is focused on the next generation. Between Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, and Drake Batherson, fans have been blessed with the progression of the team’s young talent. There are more players on the cusp — Alex Formenton, Erik Brännström, Vitaly Abramov — and some decent bets in the system.

A majority of the bonafide talent outside the organization are playing a four-hour flight away in Grand Forks, where the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks had their season end in heartbreaking fashion in a collegiate-record quintuple overtime loss to Minnesota-Duluth. While the expectation is that prospects Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker will turn pro shortly, it’s 2020 fifth overall pick Jake Sanderson that’s stolen the show.

In this article, we’ll explore the decision ahead for the Ottawa Senators and their star prospect, outlining some reasons for him to turn pro now versus staying back for a sophomore season.

Reasons to turn pro

Whether you listen to radio interviews from Pierre Dorion, Hawks’ coach Brad Berry, or longtime play-by-play broadcaster Alex Heinert; read reports from beat writer Brad Elliott Schlossman; or watch the damn games, it’s clear that Jake Sanderson is capable of taking over college games as an 18-year-old (!). His best play has come as the season has gone on, where he’s starred during North Dakota’s run to capture the NCHC championship over the last month. Case in point? Sanderson boasted a +21 Corsi differential in Saturday night’s loss and was all over the ice.

This kind of progression is quickly becoming the norm for Sanderson. He started off his draft season as a projected second-round pick, but quickly rose up draft boards as the de-facto top player from the U.S. National Team Development Program after a standout performance at the annual All-American game in January and tying for the scoring lead at the Five Nations Tournament in February.

When Colin wrote his 2020 NHL Draft profile, he highlighted three standout skills to watch from Sanderson to see if he can translate his game to the next level: his confidence with the puck, his effectiveness in transition, and utilizing his smooth skating ability as effectively as he can.

Sanderson’s textbook toolkit has translated well, including his confidence with the puck and ability to use his body to smartly shield the puck to buy time and space. His key microstats with the USDP last season — his ability to carry on entries and exits due to his fantastic skating ability — have been on full display, whether it’s gliding for an end-to-end rush, a carry through the middle of the ice (and a sweet dangle), or a catch-and-receive (in 5OT, no less!). His defensive acumen has withstood the challenge from older, stronger players, too. He’s able to smartly close on rushes with intelligent reads on either side of the ice, hold a tight gap and apply pressure with his reach and skating, and box out lanes with strong in-zone defence. Sanderson can often combine his talents to close on pucks to block shots, and sometimes transition the puck with Karlsson-esque flair for a controlled exit-to-entry.

What’s impressed me the most is that he’s been able to do that while improving on his greatest weakness: his in-zone offensive awareness and creativity. While he loves to be fancy with the extra skater by showcasing spin moves on the powerplay, it’s through utilizing his skating to buy himself (and his teammates) extra time and space that’ll help him be an offensive weapon at the pro level.

The clip below showcases both his skills and where he still needs to grow. Sanderson has the presence of mind to use his feet in motion to keep possession of the puck — an awesome attribute — and could still work on his overall offensive sense in terms of turning this effort into a more dangerous scoring chance with effective puck placement after he has his opponents scrambling, instead of taking a full lap.

Logistically, there’s a benefit to Sanderson turning pro this season. Like sixth overall pick Jamie Drysdale, Sanderson could take advantage of an extended AHL season where he could suit up for ~20 games post-quarantine, ~16 NHL games, or a combination of both instead of the usual ~5 games a collegiate prospect has left in a usual year — a decent chunk of time to take a temperature check. Drysdale has taken advantage of the postponed OHL season to feature in 14 AHL games (10 points) post-World Juniors, and has scored two points in five NHL games with the Anaheim Ducks. Drysdale has more pedigree than Sanderson and is four months older, but most reports had them close in ability heading into their draft year.

Reasons to stay at North Dakota for a sophomore season

There have been 17 defencemen who have been taken in the first-round of the NHL Draft between 2010 and 2019 and passed through college hockey on their way to the pros. Of the five who were taken in the top-10:

  • Noah Hanifin was ready the earliest — putting up similar totals to Sanderson in his draft year before jumping straight to the Carolina Hurricanes’ lineup in 2015-16.
  • Zach Werenski and Quinn Hughes’ results look deceiving if you’re just using the Draft+1 category to make this decision, because the duo played two full seasons in the NCAA and like Hanifin, also had better draft year totals in their freshman seasons than Sanderson’s Draft+1’s.
  • That leaves Cale Makar (0.62 PPG) and Jacob Trouba (0.78 PPG) as the best comparisons for Sanderson, whose 0.68 PPG totals rank between the two. Trouba had a similar physical makeup as Sanderson and turned pro, putting up 0.45 PPG in his first season with the Winnipeg Jets; while Makar went back for a dominant sophomore season and is a Norris Trophy favourite.
  • While they weren’t top-10 picks, Charlie McAvoy and Mike Matheson stand out as players with similar statistical profiles to Sanderson’s freshman year. One went pro, while the other stayed for two more seasons.

When you look at the data, what’s clear is that it’s a mixed bag — with no real indication at this high-level at least that the Senators and Sanderson should opt for one route over the other. At the NHL level, there are anywhere between 4-7 U20 defenceman on average getting decent minutes every year; and generally even less at the AHL level given the usual restrictions on CHL players like Drysdale. There’s an argument that Sanderson could be one of those special talents, but when you consider that he’s already young for his age, he could turn pro after his 19-year-old season and potentially have a more refined offensive toolkit to utilize at the next level.

Someone with inside knowledge — coach Brad Berry — thinks Sanderson will be back for another season and will be trusted to fill the void left by the (likely) departures of Matt Kiersted and Jacob Bernard-Docker on the team’s top-pair. This means playing 25 minutes a night, including a spot on the top powerplay and penalty kill with a younger, more inexperienced team that will provide a new challenge than he had to navigate this season with the #1 ranked team in the country. Moreover, while he could always be released for World Juniors’ duty even if he turned pro, it’s more likely for Sanderson to play and lead the United States at the 2022 tournament.

Finally, I think it’s worth bringing up the human element, too. Many players choose the NCAA to get the college hockey experience, and this year has been anything but that for an 18-year-old. Sanderson hasn’t experienced campus life, the pressure playing in an arena with rabid fans, or the emotional growth you experience during these formative years that can (hopefully) make you a better person and a better professional. Managing the stressors of personal life, school, and hockey are new wrinkles for players who have gotten to really compartmentalize those aspects this season.

In conclusion

Sens fans have had a tumultuous relationship with the team rushing top prospects like Curtis Lazar and Cody Ceci. This year, they’ve also gotten to see how bonafide star talents will find a way to translate their skill like Tim Stützle has. While many will say that defencemen take longer to develop, it’s usually in reference to their defensive game rather than their offensive one, and therein lies the paradox that Jake Sanderson represents as someone who has to work on the latter, not the former.

What this decision may come down to for the Senators is whether or not they believe that star defencemen have skill that they don’t have to worry about ruining, and if the tremendous growth that Sanderson has shown this season is enough for the team to say: “he’s done what he can do at the collegiate level and we believe we can take a more hands-on approach with him now at the AHL or NHL.” Of course, the primary decision maker here is Sanderson and his family, and there both on- and off-ice reasons why they might opt to stay another year to lead the North Dakota Fighting Hawks and further refine his in-zone offensive decision-making.

Regardless, what’s clear is that the organization has quite the talent on their hands, with a toolkit that uniquely addresses many of the current NHL squad’s current weaknesses defensively and in transition. I can’t wait to watch him fly.

Note: Statistics cited in this article were sourced from EliteProspects, while most of the clips were public tweets from @PeskySickos on Twitter!