Rena Laverty/USA Hockey
Jake Sanderson was selected 5th overall in the 2020 draft by the Ottawa Senators. The Whitefish, Montana native, instead of rushing into the NHL, chose to develop further in the top-notch college hockey program at the University of North Dakota. After playing a terrific two seasons for UND, being named Captain of Team USA at the World Junior Championship, and playing well for team USA at the Beijing Olympics, he has signed his Entry-Level Contract with the Senators. The ELC has a term of 3 years and an annual cap hit of 925,000 dollars. It is an excellent signing by the rebuilding Senators.
Sanderson is a two-way left-shot defenseman who seems to be able to do everything well. In this past season at UND, he had 26 points in 23 games, making him an over a point per game player, which is impressive for a defenseman. He has a shooting percentage of .121 on the season and takes an average of 2.86 shots per game. However, when it comes to evaluating the skill of a defenseman, offensive numbers like shooting percentage, shot counts, and points aren’t the best metric or at least do not tell the whole story. Defensemen should be judged more on their defensive competency, regardless of their offensive numbers. While plus/minus isn’t a remarkable statistic alone is decent for evaluating defensive performance at face value. This season at UND, Sanderson had a plus-minus of +5, and last season had a plus/minus +20. This season he blocked 27 shots, an average of 1.17 shots blocked per game. That, combined with his positive plus-minus, speaks very highly of his ability to put up points in addition to his ability to defend.
Those statistics are imperfect. It is challenging to find comprehensive, advanced defensive statistics on Sanderson like his Corsi, Fenwick, defensive WAR, Game Score, or Game Score Value Added. I don’t even have all the necessary values to calculate those advanced statistics myself. While the best way to evaluate a player is combining the eye test with the underlying numbers, the assessment of scouts in conjunction with the eye test will be more heavily leaned on in this report on Sanderson’s talents.
I recently visited the University of North Dakota and attended a game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena. While it was an exceptional experience, Sanderson wasn’t in the lineup due to his participation in the USA Olympic team. I covered Olympic hockey and was really hopeful watching team USA. It was an exciting young team that went undefeated through the preliminary round. Sanderson was a member of that team, and his impact was immediately felt on the ice. The team looked stronger, transitioned better, and seemed more dangerous. There was a trust with Sanderson on the back end and with that trust the ability to take more offensive risks. Watching him play confirmed a lot of the scouting reports I read prior to the Olympics. He is good on the rush but also strong defensively. He is a skilled skater, with a good transition game and who can generate scoring chances. He is also a physical player who is not afraid to block a shot, throw a hit, or use his size to his advantage. While the Olympics is a small sample size, it was enough of a sample size to demonstrate Sanderson’s skill as a well-rounded and highly talented defenseman. Even though the advanced statistics on Sanderson are lacking, he passes the eye test with flying colors.
The Senators have been struggling. While some of their young pieces have been performing adequately. Their Captain, newly re-signed Brady Tkachuk, hasn’t matched expectations. They traded for Travis Hamonic, a less than mediocre defenseman, and their best defenseman Thomas Chabot is injured. Sanderson will be another young talented piece joining this team and will substantially improve the D-core. That is if head coach DJ Smith plays him. There have been rumors that certain prospects remain benched because they fell out of favor with Smith. Sanderson is too talented to be squandered, and it doesn’t seem likely that Smith would misuse such a fantastic player. So Sanderson is slated to make his NHL debut soon this season, and it will be fascinating.
What Sanderson will become for the Senators is still unknown. Despite this mystery box nature, one thing’s for sure, if he performs in the NHL like he did at every level of his career, he will be a formidable threat on that blueline. The Senators aren’t done with their rebuild, but Sanderson brings up their talent level on the defense by leaps and bounds.