Ottawa Senators fans have spent their Sunday rejoicing after the team signed Jake Sanderson to an entry-level contract.
The 2020 fifth-overall pick should inject some much needed stability and skill into the blueline group of the Senators with his trademark transitional play and impressive defensive acumen. The Senators organization couldn’t be happier about signing.
Sanderson has missed many of the biggest events in his final college season as he has dealt with injuries and COVID this season. From the World Junior Championship being canceled early and missing time at the Olympics because of injury to again being injured for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and NCAA tournament, Sanderson has had a bit of a rough go in his sophomore season with the Fighting Hawks.
Currently recovering from his latest injury, an issue with his hand, Sanderson looks to get back to full health and get into some game action for the Sens.
Despite his injury issues this season, Sanderson amassed 41 points across 45 games. His 26 points in 23 games this season were impressive for a blueliner. If he had not been dealing with health issues this season, there are many in college hockey who felt he was the best player in the NCAA and would have been a Hobey Baker front runner.
With Ottawa’s current group of defenders, Sanderson’s addition will be more than welcome as he will likely become their second most talented blueliner almost immediately. The buildup and fanfare that Sanderson has received amongst the Senators fanbase is warranted but as with any player jumping from college hockey to the NHL, there will likely be an adjustment period.
That’s why playing in games this year is so important for the newest Sen. It will give him the ability to see NHL action up close and personal and ready him for what will be the biggest offseason of training he’s faced to this date. Facing the likes of Auston Matthews or Nikita Kucherov will be a big step up from dealing with Bobby Brink and Ethen Frank.
Sanderson has long been touted as a defensive force but the development of the rest of his game has been more than encouraging since the beginning of his draft year. Always well regarded as a fluid and agile skater, Sanderson has used that attribute to enhance the rest of his game.
As a defender, the 6-foot-2 blueliner has the size and speed combination that modern day defenders need to excel. Sanderson will rarely chase the play to impose his will physically but has no problem closing out along the boards and separating the man from the puck effectively with his body positioning and excellent stickwork.
His ability to diagnose an opposing offensive rush is as good as it gets outside of the NHL. He sees the play develop a step ahead and makes the correct reads to get himself into position with his feet and his stick into passing lanes as well. Sanderson is a master of thwarting play before it gets started.
Once he puts a halt on an opponent’s attack, he has the ability to both lead and aid his team in transition. His puck handling ability has grown immensely and his confidence with the puck on his stick has become more noticeable. Rather than opting for the safe play, Sanderson will often make the best play available utilizing his passing and skating ability.
Sanderson plays with his head up and will use his eyes akin to an NFL quarterback to misdirect opposing players by staring down a passing option and then cutting into space that opponents vacate. His patience allows him to stay within himself and prevents many misguided pass attempts that we often see young defenders make on the breakout.
If Sanderson isn’t the primary puck carrier through the neutral zone, he is an excellent support in transition. Consistently providing an outlet should his team need an extra man on the rush and maintaining defensive integrity, Sanderson should be a breathe of fresh air for the Senators who have struggled at times to move the puck from their own end when Thomas Chabot or Erik Brännström aren’t on the ice.
Offensively, Sanderson may not be a Cale Makar-esque difference maker but he has all of the tools to be a well-rounded playmaker and contributor. His reads from the blueline are excellent as he uses his mobility to open passing and shooting lanes with regularity. Sanderson displays deft touch on his passes throughout the offensive zone.
Sanderson has repeatedly shown the ability to take advantage when given space in the offensive zone as well, attacking the slot for more dangerous shot attempts for himself. If he can’t create a shot for himself, he draws his opposition in as he invades the offensive zone before making a silky smooth pass to an open teammate on the backdoor. He protects the puck well and plays a smart and precise game in the offensive zone.
Sanderson needs to get healthy before any of the attributes we’ve discussed can come to fruition. He understands the nuances of the game at a level that is not common for young blueliners. Once healthy, Sanderson should inject some much needed talent onto the Ottawa blueline. Getting a dose of NHL action should help him gear up for what will be an exciting run at the Calder Trophy next year for Sanderson.