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2020 NHL Draft Top Prospects: Jake Sanderson’s shutdown defence is his ticket to the NHL

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There’s no denying Sanderson turned his game up to a new level. How does that affect how teams see his potential?

2018 Under-17 Four Nations Tournament - USA vs Slovakia Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

The 2019-20 hockey season ended abruptly, early, and without much chance for late risers to move up draft boards. That didn’t stop Jake Sanderson from potentially crashing the top 10 of the 2020 NHL Draft.

His rise started mid-season, and who knows how high he would have gotten with more chance to show himself.

Birthplace: Whitefish, Montana
Date of birth: July 8, 2002
Shoots: Left
Position: Defence
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 186 lbs.
Team: US Development Team

It has been a growing trend to watch the development of younger players within a draft class. Development of 17- and 18-year-olds is always in progress, and mere months can make a difference. Teams have to forecast a month or two more than they normally would.

Montreal Canadiens fans can look at the growth shown by Jesperi Kotkaniemi from development camp to rookie camp to his first NHL pre-season in 2018. Kotkaniemi’s birthday is two days earlier than Sanderson’s, and a similar progression could be expected.

Slated to be the first NHL player to come from the state of Montana, Sanderson is committed to play NCAA hockey at the University of North Dakota for next season, but like many top prospects likely won’t need to play all four years before making his jump to the professional ranks.

Elite Prospects

Sanderson’s offensive numbers won’t jump off the page, and among those who rank him lower in the draft that’s the main question they have. There’s no comparison to someone like Cam York, who set records in the US Development Program in terms of production. Projecting Sanderson’s offence is the difference between thinking he’s a top-pairing player in the future and a surefire top prospect, or a second-pairing one.

He probably will never be a player who will quarterback a top power play, but he impacts the offensive side of the game in various other ways. The team that drafts him will not be doing so thinking they have an offensive dynamo. In a world where the definition of “stay-at-home defender” is changing rapidly, Sanderson is a guy who is part of that next generation of players who are solid in their complete game. He says he models his game after Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars.

Where there is no debate with Sanderson is his skating. It may very well be the strength of his game. His ability to skate up the ice with the puck is what scouts notice about him before anything else. The fact that he has a frame to grow into makes him a very intriguing player. His skating is so good that it can be considered to be bordering on elite.

What makes him stand out is how he matches that skating ability with a tremendous understanding of the game. He plays smart and limits the risk before making a decision.

Early in the season, Sanderson was seen as a first-round talent and is often regarded as the safest pick in the draft. His floor is that of a solid NHL player that scouts say will not bust. Bob McKenzie put him as the eighth-ranked prospect in his final ranking, a consensus of NHL scouts. At the mid-season mark he was ranked 11th by NHL Central Scouting among North American skaters. By their final ranking, they placed him fourth, just behind fellow blue-liner Jamie Drysdale, but ahead of Marco Rossi and Cole Perfetti.

McKenzie also mentioned that some scouts he talked to had Sanderson in the top three and as the draft’s top defender, showing the difference in opinion even in his ranking.

He went from a talent outside the top 10 to one firmly entrenched in that group surpassing players like Anton Lundell, Jack Quinn, Dylan Holloway, and Dawson Mercer among others. While Drysdale is still widely considered the best defenceman in the draft, Sanderson has put himself into the conversation.

At the mid-season mark is when Sanderson showed a lot more intensity on the offensive side of the puck. He started to show some explosiveness and tried to take over. While there are questions in regards to how skilled he is with the puck in tight areas, there are fewer questions about his ability to lead a transition game.

Rankings

Elite Prospects: #9
Future Considerations: #12
Hockey Prospect: #5
McKeen’s Hockey: #5
McKenzie/TSN: #8
NHL Central Scouting: #4 (North American skaters)

Looking at his development and forecasting his future based on that is what makes the scouts who are most excited about him rave.

Offensive upside is often what separates the elite defencemen from the rest of the pack, but in Sanderson’s case he has the ability to shut down top players in transition with regularity, and that is what makes people so sure that he will have success at the next level.

What he doesn’t have in dynamic offensive talent he makes up for with his awareness and passing. He was seen as a player who was competent at moving the puck and turned into a player who just had much more oomph to his game in the second half of the season. It was such a dramatic turnaround that many scouting reports made mention of it; the type of jump that is more typical from season-to-season rather than in the middle of one.

If Sanderson’s rise up draft boards wasn’t complete, the pandemic itself may be to blame. While the USNTDP has a track record of developing prospects, it’s not the easiest group to evaluate because of the abundant talent. It makes international events more important when evaluating them against their peers who play CHL, European, or NCAA hockey.

In the USHL’s All-American Game for top draft prospects in January, Sanderson had two assists and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

It may have been an All-Star Game, but he also wasn’t afraid to throw his body around.

Sanderson presents a unique challenge to teams at the top of the draft. Not only did he lose an opportunity to showcase his play at U18 Worlds and in the last part of his regular season when his game was starting to pick up, but he’s not exactly a pick that is dynamic at the top of your draft.

He was a captain at the U17 and U18 levels. He is a player that every team can use, and a winning team needs. The fact is that teams that don’t draft players like Jake Sanderson just end up searching for players like Jake Sanderson.

Teams that put him higher on their draft list will do so because they believe in his ability in the second half of the season when he turned it on. Teams that don’t will do so because they are focusing on the holes in his game.

Regardless of which side of the fence clubs land, Sanderson is going to be a first-round pick. Where he goes in the draft will depend on which teams are high on his brand of hockey.