If you’re a fan of statement performances, Jake Sanderson has a doozy for you. The 2020 draft prospect and star defenseman for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP) was in his first year with the squad when the Americans played a Five Nations tournament in Sweden last season. In the first period of the first game, Sanderson took an awkward hit along the boards and went to the dressing room to get checked out. I’ll let Sanderson take it from here:
“My bite was off, so when I pushed my teeth down they wouldn’t line up properly,” he said. “That was kind of my indication that something was really wrong, but the doctors were telling me it was because my cheek was swollen and that’s why it was off. I just sucked it up for the rest of the tournament; ate some yogurt and lots of ice cream to get calories in me after the games. It was definitely a hungry trip. When I got home I went to the dentist and he was the one that figured out my jaw was actually broken.”
Yep, the X-ray in Sweden didn’t pick up the broken jaw, so Sanderson just soldiered on. That’s pretty impressive, but the son of retired NHLer Geoff Sanderson has much more to offer a team.
“For a defenseman, the No. 1 skill you can have is the ability to close out plays defensively, to eliminate time and space from your opponents, to kill plays and then to get your team on offense,” said NTDP coach Seth Appert. “He’s the best in the world in this draft year at that and it’s probably by a country mile. He’s an elite-skating defenseman and he uses that skating to really eliminate time and space and close out plays and create turnovers.”
And once Sanderson gets those turnovers, he has the ability to rush up the ice and help create offense for his team. He led the NTDP in scoring by a defenseman with 29 points in 47 games, but probably could have tallied more had he played on a traditional junior team.
Since the NTDP puts an emphasis on development (which explains why so many graduates end up in the NHL) rather than simply winning, Sanderson only saw big minutes in international tournaments. Otherwise, he was part of a rather egalitarian rotation.
“If we were a junior team trying to win every game, he’d be playing 25, 27 minutes a night like most of the other best players in this draft,” Appert said. “That’s not what we do because we have seven, eight defensemen we need to develop. So he plays his 18 minutes a night and his offensive numbers don’t look as dramatically high, but his ability is there and he was really starting to grow that confidence in the past two months leading up to the season shutting down.”
Appert cites dominating performances at the All-American Prospects Game and February’s Five Nations tournament in Sweden (not the broken jaw one) as evidence of Sanderson’s offensive progression and there’s no doubt the kid will continue to grow his game when he gets to the University of North Dakota next year.
In the meantime, Sanderson looks back on his time with the NTDP fondly.
“The NTDP didn’t just develop my hockey game,” he said. “It developed me as a person: moving away from home for the first time and being more independent. Hockey-wise, it was definitely life-changing. Being with the best kids in the country in your age group, all the time practising and working out with them, you definitely see development in yourself. I accepted and embraced everything the NTDP had to offer and was grateful for the coaches and trainers who helped me.”
Though the 2020 NHL draft has a lot of high-end talent, most of it comes at the forward position. OHL Erie’s Jamie Drysdale will be a high pick, but Sanderson is right there with him now. A big fan of Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen, Sanderson likes the Stars blueliner’s skating and maturity.
Based on how good Sanderson has already become, it probably won’t be long before the kid is joining Heiskanen in the NHL.