Ottawa Senators Report Cards: Jake Sanderson

Was Sanderson's growth the brightest spot of the season?

Ottawa Senators Report Cards: Jake Sanderson
Photo by jim gade / Unsplash

Staff Grade: A, Reader Grade: A

It wasn't hard to find disappointments for the Ottawa Senators this past season; it was harder to find veritable bright spots. Maybe the brightest of them all was Jake Sanderson who, at age 21, established himself as undoubtedly this team's number-one defenceman. Both in terms of usage and results, Jake the Snake showed that he's a top-tier NHL defender. And given his age, he should only get better.

Per Natural Stat Trick, Sandman had a very respectable rookie season, with 50.7% of the expected goals at 5v5; he trounced that this year, getting to 53.2%. That was best among defencemen on the Sens, and behind only Tkachuk, Katchouk (?!), and Pinto among all skaters. Furthermore, Sanderson's numbers ticked up over the course of the season, so it's not unreasonable to think he could even push that higher next season.

If the story of Sanderson’s season was growth, it didn’t happen all at once. the first half of his season looked a lot like last year: very good but with the hint that more was possible. The second of the season delivered just that, as Sandy turned in a performance that has us all salivating as to what comes next.

Obviously, we can't separate Sanderson from his partner, Artem Zub. After all, Sanderson played 825 min at 5v5 with him and only 254 min without. The two had a joint expected goals for % at 5v5 of 55.3%. However, Sandy's number goes up to 56.2% without him, while Zub's drops to 44.9%. Basically, Sanderson is dominant with or without Zub, while Zub, though complementary, needs Sanderson to get his best results.

Deployment-wise, Sanderson played the most of any Sens defender this season, at 23:13 per game for 79 games. Not only that, but his minutes were tough. Looking at the forwards he got the most 5v5 minutes against this season, it's a list of the Eastern Conference's best: Kucherov, Point, Crosby, Matthews, Reinhart, Barkov. Bringing in HockeyViz's pictures, which always help me to better visualize, we can first see his impact at 5v5, where the Sens got a bit more offence but more importantly were great at suppressing shots. Look at the blue near the net on his side.

It’s worth noting that Sanderson didn’t face the opponents’ top line alone: his most common forward teammates were Claude Giroux, Brady Tkachuk, and Tim Stützle. The five-man unit was Ottawa’s most-used this season, and they often played against the opponent’s best five. That they got stellar results was in no small part due to Sanderson’s contributions from the blue line.

My biggest complaint, and it's a small complaint overall, is that his special teams play isn't amazing. He helps the Sens get slightly more offence on the PP (though too much of it from right at the blue line in my opinion), and is league-average on the PK. Though looking at the images, again it seems his left side of the net-front is fairly well-defended.

Lastly, let's just talk basics of his game. He put up 38 points this year, including 10 goals. Where he stood out the most to me was in puck-handling and speed. He was good at taking the puck away from guys, and at generating the breakout himself through his elusiveness, speed, and/or passing. As he gets more comfortable with the NHL, his ability to anticipate and to make the right play are only growing. It is a marvel to see how he can get the puck and in a couple strides be past the forechecker and leading the rush the other way. He also has very good vision, and it was best on display on this late-season OT winner, where he waited until the screen was perfect to fire home his excellently placed shot.

All in all, Sanderson's sophomore season showed all the signs of him being an undisputed number one defenceman. The Sens did well to already have locked up for the foreseeable future, to the tune of $8.05M per year for the next 8 years. His value is already high and it will only grow. His growth, especially with how the second half of his season went, could very well be the brightest silver lining to a pretty bleak season.

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