Ottawa Senators Top 25 Under 25, #6: Jake Sanderson

Ottawa’s top prospect moves up one spot in our ranking this year

#6. Jake Sanderson (Reader Rank: 6th, Last Year: 7th)

Spoiler alert, but for the second year in a row, Jake Sanderson is our highest-ranked player who’s never played an NHL game.

And it’s not even the slightest bit surprising.

Ever since the Sens went a bit off the board to draft him 5th overall in 2020, the hype around Sanderson has been steadily growing, to the point where many expect him to step right into a top-four role this coming season. It’s not hard to see why.

Sanderson was initially billed as a defensive defenseman with some offensive upside. Elite in transition, physical, and with good hockey sense was the initial scouting report. Since being drafted, he’s built on that skillset and discovered a talent for creating offense. He had a great freshman season at the University of North Dakota in 2020-21, and was absolutely incredible in 2021-22.

Check out some of his highlights from this past season. They’re quite something.

When he wasn’t making NCAA athletes look silly, Sanderson was flying around the globe on an absolutely wild run of bad luck. In December, he suited up for Team USA as their captain for a world junior tournament that would ultimately be canceled after a few games. Then in February, he went to Beijing for another chance to represent his country, but his arrival was delayed because he tested positive for COVID right before flying out, and then he injured himself in his first and only game in the tournament. He played a few more games for North Dakota before injuring himself again. Then he came to Ottawa to sign his entry-level contract and train with the team with the expectation that he’d be able to play before the end of the season, but didn’t end up making it back onto the ice in time. He was truly a victim of whatever curse befell the Sens this season.

Even despite all that, Sanderson put up a more than respectable 26 points in 23 games for North Dakota. He was incredibly dominant on the ice, having clearly outgrown NCAA hockey. He looks like the complete package - great defensive awareness, and incredibly dynamic with the puck on his stick. It’s hard to watch these clips of him absolutely undressing opponents and not get excited about what this could mean for the Ottawa Senators.

The one concern about Sanderson right now is his injury history. He did have a lot of injuries all at once, and it would suck if that continued to be an issue for him. However, it sounds like he’s fully healthy now and ready for training camp, so we’ll see what happens.

The other big question is how quickly he’ll be able to make the jump to the NHL, and there really isn’t any way to know that until preseason at least. If we had seen more of him at the World Juniors or the Olympics, that might have given us a better sense of how good he is against different competition, but really all we’ve seen from Sanderson recently has been at the NCAA level. Defensemen often go through a lot of growing pains at the start of their NHL careers - Sens fans have seen all our star defensive prospects spend time in the AHL before becoming full-time NHLers - but Sanderson does at least have the advantage of already knowing how to play defense. What’s more, he’s a big, physical player with good hockey IQ, which should translate well to the NHL. It’s not unheard of for star defensemen to do well in their first taste of NHL action. Just look at this year’s Calder winner!

It’s no secret that a lot is riding on Sanderson’s development right now. If he can step right into a top-four role, the Sens will have two solid pairings. If he can carry a bad defense partner the way Chabot can, they’ll be in a great spot. If he struggles, though, we’ll have to adjust our expectations for this season, and Pierre Dorion will have some difficult questions to answer about why he didn’t make more of an effort to upgrade the defense. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a 20-year-old, but if you’re going to hang all your hopes on one prospect, you could do a lot worse than Jake Sanderson.

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