#7. Jake Sanderson (Reader Rank: 6th, Last Year: 9th)
It’s almost been a year since the Ottawa Senators drafted Jake Sanderson with the 5th overall pick of the 2020 NHL Draft; a decision that you may recall was mildly controversial at the time, mostly owing to the crop of talented forwards available. As of this writing, it’s hard not to be thrilled with how Sanderson has progressed, with the 6’2 left-handed defenceman making strides in virtually every aspect of his game. These improvements have him all the way up to 7th on this year’s Top 25 Under 25.
Considering the talent already at the top of the Sens’ system, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even someone who’s been as good as Sanderson has yet to crack the upper echelons. That said, when we hone in on the finer details of his game, there’s lots of reason to believe he could well be near the very top of the organizational depth chart before long.
Sanderson’s exceeded expectations because he’s improved his biggest perceived weaknesses. The scouting consensus was that he projected to be a fantastic defender leading up to the draft, and that certainly has been proven true, but there were concerns about his abilities on the other side of the puck. Questions regarding his ability to create offense were answered in full during his freshman year with the University of North Dakota, as Sanderson deployed a fantastic combination of edgework, vision, and puck control in tight to score 15 points in 22 games.
Normally, when you see puck skills like that, one of your first thoughts might be, “okay, so how good is that player in their own end?”, but in the case of Sanderson, public rankings listed him in the Top 15 of the 2020 NHL Draft class, and the second-best defenseman because of his defensive ability.
What’s exciting about that is that he now projects as an elite two-way defender, with a ceiling that would put him in the same category as Thomas Chabot. Having two defensemen of this calibre playing on the same side would be a luxury that would set Ottawa up on the backend for years to come.
It appears the team did their due diligence in monitoring Sanderson’s progress over the course of the season. His stock increased the way it did because he was able to demonstrate a level of offensive creativity that wasn’t there earlier. It’s very rare for a player to develop these skills over a short period of time. In this case, development came in the form of learning how to use those raw tools he already possessed to successfully drive play, all while becoming more comfortable doing so.
Mitch Brown from EliteProspects is known for tracking stats for hockey prospects, and we saw last year that among draft-eligible defensemen, Sanderson was the best at entering the offensive zone, and fifth-best at exiting the defensive zone. In the following video, Brown adds some colour to the numbers by looking at what exactly Sanderson does that makes him one of the best transitional players in college hockey.
The footage pertains to transitional play for the most part, but Sanderson’s also shown himself to be a capable defender off the rush, being able to control the space between him and the attacker while making use of his stick with good timing.
Beyond his success in college, being selected as part of the 2021 NCHC All-Rookie Team, Sanderson also won gold with Team USA at the World Juniors in that same year, contributing 2 assists in 7 games. And as long as he’s holding down the blueline, the Americans are a good bet to strike gold in consecutive years.
In his sophomore season, Sanderson will face the challenge of increasing his offensive output on a UND squad that’s lost a ton of talent up front, notably Jordan Kawaguchi, Collin Adams, Grant Mismash, and fellow Senators’ prospect Shane Pinto. He’ll have an increased role as the team’s number-one defenseman, which should give him an opportunity to compete for a national championship, as well as the Hobey Baker Award, handed out to college hockey’s MVP.
Sanderson will most likely sign his entry-level deal in Ottawa after his second year in college is done. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him be not only NHL-ready at that point, but in serious consideration for the Calder Trophy in 2022-23. I’d tell you not to get too excited about him, but I’m not sure that’s possible.