Looking Ahead to Jake Sanderson’s Impact on the Ottawa Senators’ Defence Corps

How should the Senators best go about managing a defence corps with two left-handed stars?

You’ve seen Thomas Chabot dominate at both ends of the ice this season. Sadly, you’ve also seen what the Ottawa Senators look like when he’s on the bench. Wouldn’t it be great if, while Chabot was taking a breather, the Senators could still be a decent team? Well, I’m happy to inform you that there’s a solution, and his name is Jake Sanderson.

Wait, no, that’s the wrong defensemen, sorry about that. Let’s see...

That’s much better. We’ve already gone through lengths to cover the fifth-overall pick from 2020’s incredible combination of skating, puck skills, and two-way awareness, so here we’ll mostly focus on his projected impact on Ottawa’s defense corps, beyond declaring in a few words that it’s going to be awesome.

In a few words, it’s going to be awesome. Chabot has already performed as well as you could ask from him in a top-pairing role, and it’s generally agreed upon that his ice time should be kept to around 25 minutes per night. Should Sanderson reach that same caliber of player, he’d ideally be playing that same amount as well, which effectively guarantees the presence of an elite puck-moving Senators defenseman for most of the game.

The remaining time will feature opposing players either having their ankles broken by Erik Brännström, being flung into the stands by Tyler Kleven, or giving away the puck in a daze trying to figure out who in the world Jonathan Aspirot is, so we should be good on that front.

It’s impossible to ignore the challenges of successfully implementing this sort of defense, however. Chabot has a very capable partner in Artem Zub, but there’s nobody at the moment who’s primed to pair up with Sanderson.

A long-term answer could exist in Belleville. Naturally, you’d look to a couple of recent first-round picks — Jacob Bernard-Docker in 2018 and Lassi Thomson in 2019 — to fill the void in the Senators’ top four. So far, Bernard-Docker has 2 goals in seven AHL games, with a plus-1 rating on a team that’s generally been outplayed to start the year.

I understand the clamor for the recall of Brännström, and I definitely think the Senators should do something to modify their NHL defense, but for now, JBD seems most deserving of a call-up in my opinion. Thomson is a few months younger and has contributed 1 goal in four games with the B-Sens this season, so we’ll place him behind Bernard-Docker on the depth chart for now.

Aside from these two, 2019 7th-round pick Maxence Guenette has also developed well over the past two years with the Val d'Or Fourers of the QMJHL, and featuring in our Top 25 Under 25 series this past offseason. He’s got 1 assist through four games with Belleville thus far, and likely won’t be a candidate to be called up until his second or third AHL season, but keep an eye on him.

If we get to a point where the prospects haven’t taken as big of a step as necessary, the team may have to look at external options via trade or free agency, which considering the best of what Pierre Dorion’s professional scouting team has recently given us have been Nick Holden and Ron Hainsey, is somewhat terrifying.

Things are further complicated by Zub being an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2022-23 season, so Beata, if you’re reading this I’d get an early start on his farewell piece just in case.

In all seriousness, for this defense corps to be worthy of a contending team, we need two good right-handed defenders to be here for a long time — the options at this point consist of Zub, who will need a considerable raise to stay in the nation’s capital during Sanderson’s prime years, and the three prospects mentioned earlier. We could eventually get to a point where we’re declaring the sky to be falling, but we’re not close to that point as of yet.

It’s hard to set a precedent for having two star defensemen playing on the same side, on different pairs. The one example that immediately comes to mind is Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on the San Jose Sharks in 2018-19. The two played 24, and 25 minutes a night respectively, and according to NaturalStatTrick, Karlsson was on a stable pair with Brendan Dillon while Burns saw a rotation of depth defenseman in Joakim Ryan and Radim Simek. With this model, the Sharks made it all the way to Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, and we all *giggle* know what happened after that.

I believe Ottawa’s best move would be to keep two solid pairs playing around 20 minutes a night, and occasionally running Chabot and Sanderson at the same time to increase their ice time a bit. This would also ensure that the rest of their defensive lineup doesn’t get overwhelmed, which will be to the benefit of the entire team.

Am I jumping the gun on Sanderson? Going on about what the defense corps will look like for years to come with two stars on the blueline when he hasn’t played a single game in the NHL? I doubt it. He was considered to be one of the two best defensemen in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, and has already demonstrated the elite transitional play which fits the mold of the “new-age shutdown defensemen”. He’s got 8 points in 7 games with UND, and if that holds up, it’ll be a comparable pace to the sophomore production of Adam Fox, who won the Norris last season as the league’s best defenseman.

With Thomas Chabot and Jake Sanderson both in the organization for at least the next seven years, the Ottawa Senators have a massive opportunity to form a vital component of the competitive team they’re trying to build. They’ve yet to prove they can consistently target reliable veteran defenders to complement the younger players, but all they need is to nail one or two deals and they’ll be in business.

For now, just accept that the team is going to get their wins through their top pair and a forward group that’s punching above its weight class, and try to remember the light at the end of the tunnel with every defensive collapse.

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