To say that Jake Sanderson has faced high expectations since being drafted by the Ottawa Senators would be a massive understatement. Since then, he’s dominated NCAA hockey for two seasons at the University of North Dakota, and Ottawa fans had been eagerly awaiting his arrival. A lot of that is because of how good he looked in the NCAA, but some of it is also because the Senators defense corps has been a clear weak spot for years now — and Sanderson was viewed as a potential “saviour.”
The problem with that is clear: hoping a 20-year-old can be a “saviour”, particularly as a defenseman, is often asking to be disappointed. And yet, I don’t know if there’s a single Senators fan who has been disappointed with Sanderson’s performance through 15 games. Does that mean he’s all of a sudden a Norris canddiate? No, but he is at least meeting every sky-high expecation thrust upon him and exceeding the more rational ones. With all due respect to Thomas Chabot, it’s the first time that Ottawa have a young defenseman this good, right away, since Erik Karlsson.
If you watch any Senators game, you’d have no idea that Sanderson is a rookie with a mere 15 games under his belt. The poise he possesses in every situation is admirable, as he never seems to panic even when under intense pressure. He has been making smart passes, winning puck battles against star players, and has shown a phenomenal ability to transition from defense to offense. Here are several clips of him making smart plays that not everyone would be able to make, especially as a rookie:
Jake Sanderson is good. pic.twitter.com/k1T1yyOUuh— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) October 20, 2022
Sanderson makes an excellent play to find Chabot, who waits too long to shoot again. pic.twitter.com/PpMBnXCxCF— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) November 6, 2022
Giroux wires his second of the night as the powerplay concludes. #GoSensGo— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) November 4, 2022
Wicked feed by Sanderson. Tkachuk adds an assist as well. pic.twitter.com/36gBUeRWdO
Sanderson is so good. pic.twitter.com/HRTx6xLxB7— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) October 29, 2022
Jake Sanderson earns a cheer for this hit on Ovechkin. pic.twitter.com/7dCQBiFYxo— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) October 21, 2022
That’s all in the eye test, which seems to be virtually unanimous amongst everyone that has watched him. Very encouragingly, he has the numbers back it up as well.
First of all, Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub are now out of the lineup, leaving Sanderson as the clear #1 defenseman on the team—as a rookie. He played a team-high 25:13 on Monday against a hot New York Islanders team and rocked a 61.93 xGF% at 5v5; output that is just expected at this point. His average time on ice is up to 20:13, which is fourth on the Senators and third amongst rookies behind Owen Power and Kaiden Guhle, who have much less protection around them on their defense corps’.
On playing time alone, it’s impressive enough that Sanderson is swimming. Then when you factor in the underlying numbers, he still looks rock solid. He has a 52.98 CF% and a 52.56 xGF%, which ranks 10th amongst rookies in both categories. That doesn’t necessarily blow you out of the water, but it’s more impressive considering his workload. According to Evolving Hockey, he sits tied for 5th amongst rookies in Goals Above Replacement at 3.3, which is actually dragged down by his -0.8 value on the powerplay. That 3.3 mark is tied with Tim Stützle for the team lead, and is tied for 30th amongst all NHL defensemen.
Furthermore, JFresh has Sanderson’s WAR as in the 96th percentile, with lots of room to grow on the powerplay:
Number one defenseman, anyone?
Now, some of these advanced stats look funky in the early going (like Michael Stone being ninth amongst defensemen in GAR) and will change throughout the season, but we can use those numbers in conjunction with the eye test to be extremely confident that what we’re seeing is legitimate and sustainable talent. When you compare this start to Chabot’s struggles, you have to actually wonder the heretical question: who is the better player right now?
Like I said, Sanderson isn’t going to be a Norris candidate this season, and he might not even end up being a Calder finalist. But as of now, it’d be hard to leave him off the top-3 of a Calder ballot alongside others such as Matias Maccelli, Owen Power, and Shane Pinto. The fact that he’s even in that conversation is a huge win for the Senators, because they really needed Sanderson to be a top-4 defenseman as soon as possible.
There will be warts that show along the way like there are with any young defenseman, but Ottawa has a special player on their hands. Although a lot of people were expecting him to be this good early on, it’s hard not to think that he’s surpassing his expectations anyway. Welcome to the show, kid. No pressure.