Best Defender: Jake Sanderson (48%)
Runners up: Lassi Thomson (26%), Erik Brännström (17%), Jacob Bernard-Docker (10%)
First and foremost, even with Jake Sanderson’s abbreviated season and the statistical struggles of the three other finalists, we still have a lot to look forward to on the blueline in Ottawa. This season didn’t have the same feeling that comes with an elite prospect pool but these defenders all have the potential to make a difference in the NHL basically as soon as October. Alas, we came here to talk about one defender, and considering he missed so much time due to illness and injuries, it speaks volumes to his 23 games in North Dakota that Sanderson dethroned Brännström (Sanderson finished second in the ballots last year).
Let’s start with the season in review: as noted Sanderson played 23 games with North Dakota, where he racked up eight goals and 18 assists and looking very much like one of the elite players in the NCAA. Sanderson also captained the US team at the IIHF World Juniors (or would have but they had to cancel the tournament), and then COVID and the injury bug struck again as Sanderson played in just one Olympic match for team USA to go along with his one WJC outing. Again, this speaks volumes to just how well Sanderson played in North Dakota for his sophomore season when injuries, illness, and the pandemic in general would allow it. Also of note, Sanderson averaged more than two-and-a-half shots per game with the Fighting Hawks. Jake, Jake, Jake!
So, how does he do it? Sanderson carries the puck in a way very few other defenders can. He has exceptional puck management skills. When you watch the tape you can really appreciate his controlled zone entries and his ability to hold the line off the cycle. Sanderson skates in the offensive zone with the kind of confidence that draws in all five opposing players, allowing him to open up lanes and pick his spots for passes. Sanderson has a centre’s vision and knows where to find his teammates down low, often getting defenders and goalies to bite on the fake. As his eight goals in 23 games would indicate, he also has a quick release and can beat goalies cleanly when given the chance.
On the defensive side of the puck, Sanderson uses the same awareness to keep the opposition in front of him. Even when he does carry the puck in deep, he controls the play well enough that his opponents can’t try to cheat for positioning behind him at the blueline. He also moves swiftly enough to get back on the point and the first signs of trouble. Sanderson controls gaps very effectively and knows how to gain inside positioning and how to use his stick to separate the puck from the carrier without taking penalties. Those six PIMs in 23 games speak as loudly as any of Sanderson’s other stats. He plays a very clean game because he has the skating mechanics to keep up with even the best offensive opponents and he has the patience and awareness to make the right plays in his own zone. He also excels in the corners. Watching Sanderson poke-check and retrieve, he reminds me more of Mark Stone than Erik Karlsson in terms of hockey IQ and spatial awareness. Yeah, I said it.
Looking ahead to next season, Sanderson has his professional contract signed and looks ready for the NHL but the Senators already have six established NHL defenders under contract, and Sanderson will have to win out that seventh spot over older prospects such as Brännström, Thomson, and Bernard-Docker. Whether he starts next season in Ottawa or Belleville, I wonder most how Sanderson will adapt to the nastiness (for lack of a better word) of the North American professional leagues. Even phenomenal athletes like Tim Stützle can only do so much while getting cross-checked in the throat, and while Sanderson towers over a player like Brännström, every player needs to adapt to the size and speed of the professional game.
Injuries and illness will also loom over Sanderson’s first professional camp as we all hope he can put last season’s issues behind him and get back to 100% over the summer. To an extent, I also wonder how much of Sanderson’s individual offence can carry over to the AHL or NHL. I don’t know that those eight goals make it past professional goalies even with Sanderson’s quick wrister, but he’ll have good passing options with the Senators. Controlled zone entries also don’t come easily in the NHL so we’ll see if Brännström can share some advice on outlet passes. Either way, Sanderson has without question become the star of Ottawa’s defensive prospect pool and will make a significant impact in Ottawa either this season or next, and we should all feel pretty stoked about that. Enjoy the film!