Deep Dive: A Look Into Jake Sanderson’s Game
With Jamie Drysdale firmly entrenched as the best defenseman available in the 2020 NHL Draft, two of the biggest questions will be who will be in regards to which rearguard will follow and how early will a team jump at the opportunity of plucking him off the board.
This year’s draft is loaded with high-end forwards at the top of the class and the title of second-best defender is fairly debated. Possibly the fastest riser in the conversation has been Jake Sanderson of the National Team Development Program (NTDP).
From the middle of the second round in October to a possible top-15 talent come draft day, whenever that should be determined, Sanderson’s rise seemed to truly take off after his MVP performance in the Biosteel All-American Top Prospects game in January. His development over the course of the season has been encouraging as he has shown growth in all facets of the game.
So what makes Sanderson a top-15 possibility and the chance to be the second defender off the board?
Sanderson’s biggest strength is that his game has very few holes. He is the type of defender that projects well to the NHL, and he plays the game that the NHL is continually moving towards. Sanderson plays a high-paced, smooth-skating, high IQ style of hockey that should allow him to excel early in his career.
The defensive zone doesn’t get enough attention from most 17- and 18-year-old blueliners, but Sanderson is at his best in his own zone. The American plays a mature defensive game that is predicated on the fact that he is quite a good skater and his decision-making is years beyond his vintage.
When defending an oncoming rush, Sanderson is proficient at closing the gap, taking away the time and space to ensure that the attacker is unable to go with their ‘Plan A’ upon entry, which often forces dump-ins that Sanderson or his defensive partner can corral, mitigating any dangerous scoring chance.
The clip below is a good example of how Sanderson can defend the rush in two different ways and they happen to be on the same shift.
On the initial entry, Sanderson keeps his stick in good position, forcing the puck carrier to hold onto the puck before the NTDP’s top defenseman closes him off with a solid body check. This separates the man from the puck, allowing Sanderson’s partner to retrieve the puck. The puck is sent up ice but quickly recovered by the opposition. This is when Sanderson puts his skating on display, coming from across the ice and cutting off the attacker as he enters the NTDP defensive zone. His defensive awareness is excellent here as he identifies the threat despite not being in the vicinity, recovering from attempting to jump into the attack. Sanderson uses his speed and good stick to limit options. This keeps the puck to the perimeter, resulting in a quick recovery and clear by the NTDP.
The best defense is preventative rather than reactionary, and that’s what Sanderson does best. He has an excellent stick and often breaks up offensive plays before they have any real chance at becoming dangerous by meeting the attacker at the blue line, making it difficult to cleanly enter the zone.
As we can see in the following video, Sanderson is smooth on his feet, staying in good position relative to the opposition. When he identifies the pass, he steps up into the lane and deflects the puck away from the intended recipient. This leads to one of Sanderson’s teammates picking the loose puck up and driving the net for an offensive chance. This type of aggression when defending an oncoming rush is perfect for the modern game where so much of the puck movement is based on fluidity, Sanderson has the ability to disrupt that and prevent any advanced creativity.
Insert “Jake Sanderson – Good Defensive play – Poke free at blue line…”
Sanderson can take over the ice and calm things down for himself and his teammates. He turns the play around with patience and awareness of his surroundings. He is rarely caught off guard when defending.
In the clip below, we can see Sanderson at the blue line, preparing to stand the attacker up as they collect the pass. When the pass is missed, he turns and corrals the puck just inside the defensive zone before tracking back into his end of the ice and behind his own net. After emerging from behind his net, he identifies a forechecking forward and makes a small and seemingly simple pass. The pass becomes more difficult as Sanderson stops up to avoid the hit. This awareness is a part of what makes Sanderson an effective player.
In-zone defense is a difficult task for many NHL veterans as it requires a variety of skills that not every blueliner possesses. To play a high-level of in-zone defense, the tools needed are strength, skating and IQ. Many times a defender will have one or two of those traits but rarely are they able to combine the three. Sanderson, against his peers, is proficient enough in all three areas to excel in his own end and projects to be more than effective at the next level because of it.
As we watch Sanderson in the next clip, we can identify his use of all three basic traits of strength, skating and IQ. The clip begins with Sanderson playing defense against an odd-man rush. Once the puck is guided to the outside, Sanderson tracks the attacker to the back of the net, picking their pocket in the process. He escapes from the back of the net with the puck on his stick, and exits the zone with control before he outlets to Bordeleau on the wall. Once he makes the pass, he drives the center lane, splitting the defenders and receives a return pass that allows him to generate a dangerous chance on the opposing net. This type of counter-strike offense is a major factor to the growth of Sanderson’s game.
A key factor to the modern-day defenseman is how well they transition the puck.
As we can see in the previous video, Sanderson is more than a capable transitional defender. His near elite-level skating aids in his ability to move the puck from one end of the ice to the other. His agility and edgework through the neutral zone allow him to elude the opposition and safely transport the puck. His tendency for exiting the zone with control helps prevent extended defensive zone time and ensure that the puck clears the zone without major worry of committing a turnover.
Sanderson is an accurate passer as well. His breakout passes are crisp and his decision-making with the puck on a breakout is well above average. He understands that the big play is not always the best way to get things done. He makes good, intelligent plays when exiting his defensive zone. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have the ability to make the long stretch pass, as he is more than capable, but rather to say that he has a bit more to his arsenal than the homerun ball. His intelligence and awareness allow him to make the simple plays look effortless and the difficult plays look simple.
As an offensive contributor, Sanderson doesn’t have the dynamic elements to his game like a Drysdale or Jeremie Poirier, but he does possess all the tools to be successful. More likely destined for second power play time than first unit, Sanderson is an excellent facilitator and triggerman from the top of the zone who occasionally flashes offensive brilliance, leaving the door open for an upside that hasn’t fully materialized quite yet.
In the following video, Sanderson is at the top of the zone in a four-on-three power play. He starts the clip by holding the offensive blue line and keeping the puck in by flipping it into the opposite corner. He then shows off his skating ability as he attempts to find the open shooting lane. When he is unable to find the open shooting lane, he passes the puck to Thomas Bordeleau, who ends up spinning and returning the pass to Sanderson. He almost immediately puts a pass onto Jacob Truscott’s stick that ends up in the back of the net.
The one true plus-tool that Sanderson possesses in the offensive zone, outside of his IQ, is the one that he doesn’t use nearly enough. His shot. He has a big slap shot from the blue line that often leads to rebounds or loose pucks in front of the net. He does a particularly good job of identifying space and attacking it.
As we can see below, Sanderson gets the puck at the far-left point before he identifies the space in front of him, closing the space between himself and the netminder before releasing a wicked wrist shot to beat the netminder.
The potential for Sanderson’s offensive game is still quite high because of the combination of his raw tools and IQ. He flashes the offensive brilliance from time-to-time, showcasing what the full package could ultimately end up being at the next level.
To get one of the best glimpses of that, we go back to where the ‘rise’ of Sanderson started — the Biosteel All-American game.
You can see the full game highlights here with plenty of Jake Sanderson content throughout but we are going to look at the assist that Sanderson had on the Hunter Strand goal. Sanderson receives the puck at the point and immediately makes the decision to attack the most dangerous areas on the ice, the slot. He shows excellent puck control, often using one hand to hold off defenders and the other to corral the puck. He then identifies the open forward, Strand, on the backside of the net. He puts a perfect pass through the crease while skating against the grain. This is an extremely difficult pass to make as it is not only across the body but also through traffic around the net front.
Much has been made of the drop-off in talent from last year’s U18 team. Last year’s team was legendary, and we may never see that kind of talent assembled at one time again. Almost assuredly, Sanderson would have played a prominent role on that team if he had been born a year earlier. He is a legitimate first-round prospect.
Sanderson has grown over the year, developed his offensive game and shut down opposing players all year.
His game is predicated on his elite-level intelligence to go along with his raw tools of skating, strength and speed. When he puts his entire package together, he shows the ability to be the kind of defenseman who can take over a game at both ends of the ice. He has learned to put it all together more and more as the year has gone on but more work will be needed to figure out exactly where his offensive potential truly is.
His defensive game is easily among the best in the draft class and he will likely be able to step into the NHL after a couple of seasons at the University of North Dakota, where he is committed for the 2020-21 season, and find a place in a teams top-four.
Where Sanderson ultimately ends up being drafted is still up for debate.
We are at the point where we can safely assume that Sanderson will be a first-round pick. The question should be more focused on where in the first-round he will go. While Sanderson has a stout defensive game and the ability to bring an offensive element to his game, he will need to work on how much he can contribute to the offensive end of the ice.
Sanderson should definitely challenge for a top-20 selection and it certainly is not out of the question that Sanderson is the big riser that a team in the back-half of the top-10 drafts in a situation reminiscent of Moritz Seider last season.
It won’t be until draft day, however, that we ultimately see how high Sanderson rises.