Defensemen are always in demand at the NHL Entry Draft. Even when most services, scouts, and fans who follow the draft closely figure there is only one or two defensemen worth taking in the top ten, the NHL teams end up picking more - even going “off the board” as they see fit. In 2019, Bowen Byram was the only defender touted to be a sure-fire top-ten pick. He was. Many were surprised when two others, Moritz Seider and Philip Broberg, were picked not long after him. Those aware of the recent history of the draft may have not been so surprised. At least two defensemen were picked in the top ten of a NHL Draft since 2006 - which was the last time only one was picked within the first ten selections (and Erik Johnson went first overall). For the 2020 draft class, the consensus is that Jamie Drysdale is the top prospect among rearguards. It is an open question as to who is the next best defenseman. Knowing history, whoever it is may end up going earlier than most would expect. It is a good question to debate and one of the touted players is the subject of today’s 2020 NHL Draft prospect profile: Jake Sanderson of the United States National Team Development Program.
Who is Jake Sanderson?
According to his profile at Elite Prospects, Jake Sanderson hails from Whitefish, Montana and was born on July 8, 2002. He is officially listed at 6’1” and 185 pounds. He has a left-handed shot and so he is a left-sided defenseman. You may also know his dad. Jake Sanderson is the son of Geoff Sanderson, who had a very long and successful career in pro hockey as a forward with 1,104 NHL games played with Hartford, Carolina, Vancouver, Buffalo, Columbus, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Edmonton from 1990-91 through 2007-08. Geoff Sanderson indeed helped Jake as a child, per this March 24, 2020 article by Mark Falkner of The Detroit News, working on his skating more than anything else. But the elder has stepped back and Jake has formed his own path in hockey. Jake has been a member of the United States National Team Development Program and he is committed to go to the University of North Dakota for the 2021-22 season.
More than just a member of the USNTDP, Jake Sanderson has been a leader. He was the captain of the Under-17 team in 2018-19 and the captain of the Under-18 team in 2019-20. Sanderson was also the leading defenseman in scoring in both seasons. With the U-17s, he put up four goals, twenty assists, and 83 shots in 44 games. With the U-18s, he put up seven goals, twenty-two assists, and 74 shots in 47 games. While neither the point or shot totals really jump off the page, he did produce more than his teammates on the blueline. He also had a much higher rate of scoring in USHL games played in this past season, with 14 points in 19 games but the USNTDP players do not necessarily play regularly in USHL games. Perhaps the most impressive part of Sanderson’s modest statline are his penalty minute totals. With the U-17s, he just had 18 PIM. With the U-18s, he had only 12 PIM outside of the USHL and 8 PIM in USHL games. For a defenseman, especially a young one, that is very good to see. It suggests that Sanderson plays a well disciplined game. That is always a plus.
What remains a question mark is what is next for Sanderson. His commitment to North Dakota starts in two seasons. He was drafted by Kootenay of the Western Hockey League, so he does have a major junior option. However, I doubt he will go in that direction. This article on Sanderson back on January 15, 2020 by Brad Elliot Schlossman at The Grand Forks Herald includes a statement that he is trying to accelerate his education to graduate earlier and join North Dakota for the 2020-21 season. That would be an impressive feat if he manages it. It would avoid having to stick around in the USHL or look for a team in Junior A for next season. The article also notes that Sanderson is 6’2” - so there’s that.
If it seems like Sanderson is a bit “under the radar,” then consider the current global pandemic has undercut international hockey significantly. The USNTDP is built to develop players not only for the future but to come together as a team to win medals in world hockey. The USNTDP does not really care much for the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, so Sanderson did not go to that last Summer. The team is built to try and win at the World Under-18 Championships, which were cancelled. As it would have been in Plymouth, Michigan - home of the USNTDP - it would have been a big stage for Sanderson and his teammates. But that is not happening this year. In between, there were some showcases. As per Falkner’s article, Sanderson had a great showing at the BioSteel All-American Prospects Game and was named MVP. Additionally, Sanderson was tied for the tournament lead in scoring at the Five Nations, an under-18 tourney that is kind of a World U-18 warm-up, back in February. Those are not really among the most popular events outside of the scouts who attend them. Add to that the Under-18 team in 2019-20 was following the historically outstanding 2018-19 roster and so I can understand why he is not as highly touted as the other top prospects of this draft class. However, as I have dug into what others have said about Sanderson, I can certainly see why he has received more and more attention.
Where is Jake Sanderson Ranked?
In general, the 2020 draft class has a very, very good top-ten. And according to some, Sanderson is among them. Others have him outside of the top-ten but definitely up among the “best of the rest.”
- #4 North American Skater - Central Scouting Services (April 8, 2020 - Final Ranking)
- #12 - EliteProspects Top 31 (February 2020 ranking)
- #17 - Future Considerations (March 1, 2020 ranking)
- #10 - McKeen’s (Mid-season rankings from January 18, 2020 via EliteProspects)
- #11 - International Scouting Services (March 2020 ranking via EliteProspects)
- #22 - HockeyProspect (January 16, 2020 ranking)
- #9 - TSN.ca - Bob McKenzie (Mid-season ranking from January 30, 2020)
- #12 - TSN.ca - Craig Button (March 30, 2020 ranking)
- #15 - Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst (March 2, 2020 ranking)
- #7 - NHL.com - Mike G. Morreale (March 6, 2020 ranking)
- #13 - Sportsnet - Sam Cosentino (April 8, 2020 ranking)
- #12 - Dobber Prospects - Cam Robinson (April 1, 2020 ranking)
- #16 - The Hockey Writers - Josh Bell (February 28, 2020 ranking)
- #19 - The Hockey Writers - Andrew Forbes (March 14, 2020 ranking)
- #15 - The Hockey Writers - Larry Fisher (April 6, 2020 ranking)
- #29 - Raw Charge - Lauren Kelly (Mid-season, January 22, 2020 ranking)
- #32 - Defending Big D - Derek Neumeier (Mid-season, January 20, 2020 ranking)
The lower rankings, except for McKeen’s and Bob McKenzie’s, are all from January. The general word on Sanderson is that his game has been growing and so the more recent rankings may be more reflective of where he could go. As an example of this growth, just look at Steve Kournianos’ ranking at The Draft Analyst. From his midseason top 300 in mid-January, Sanderson was 32nd on his list. In his top 125 ranking back at the beginning of March, he moved him up seventeen spots to 15th on his list. As more rankings come out in April and in May, do not be surprised if more and more of them have Sanderson in the top 20. Especially with Central Scouting Services recently bumping Sanderson up from 11th in their midterm rankings all the way to fourth among North American-based skaters.
Whether he would crack to the top ten like ISS, McKenzie, McKeen’s and Morreale did is another question. On March 17 at Sportsnet, Sam Cosentino highlighted Sanderson as one of the top prospects whose draft fate may suffer with the cancellation of the World U-18s. As he wrote:
Having already experienced a massive jump in projection from the start of the season, many were anxious to see Sanderson in a setting consistently against top-notched competition. There’s been no questioning Erie’s Jamie Drysdale as the top defence prospect available in this draft class, but a world-class performance in a world-class event might’ve enabled Sanderson to challenge Drysdale in that regard. There is a thought that Prince Albert’s Kaiden Guhle may still be considered the second best.
It depends on who has that thought. It only takes one team to think highly of a player enough to pick him. And given what I read about Sanderson, I can see why team scouts would have a lot to like about the defenseman.
What Others Say About Jake Sanderson
Steve Kournianos put up a detailed profile of Sanderson’s game at The Draft Analyst on February 16, 2020. The date is notable because it is amid his rise among the various rankings and pundits. As you can read from the profile, there is a lot to like about Sanderson. Kournianos praises his skating, his physical game and how disciplined he is at it, and his vision on the ice. What he wrote about his defensive game is worth highlighting:
...unlike most young defenders, Sanderson is as good as it gets when it comes to defending below the circles. Not only does he maintain optimal slot spacing between opponents who are spread out, but his rapid processing time in conjunction with a quick and powerful first step allows him to break up bang-bang attempts from the corner or behind the net with regularity.
The beauty of Sanderson’s defensive game is how quickly he meshes all these traits together before collecting the puck for himself and exploding up ice for a counterattack. He also is an excellent penalty killer who keeps the crease clear within the letter of the rule book.
This reads to me as a defender who just “gets it” on defense. That may not seem like much. But it is not common to find young hockey prospects who can understand gap control, when to try to intercept the puck, playing around his crease, and does it all without taking a lot of penalties. While Sanderson has done this with the USNTDP and acclimating to the next level will take some time, a coach is already going to know he has a good base to work with in Sanderson. That Sanderson understands this now does bode well for his future. It may not be flashy but it definitely is an asset and desirable one for any defenseman.
At around the same time (February 23, to be precise), Ben Misfeldt of The Prospect Network has a detailed profile of Sanderson. He graded out his various attributes and found that none of them were lower than average. Similar to Kournianos, Misfledt had good things to say about his skating although he notes that Sanderson is not particularly fast. He highlighted his puck control, as per his post:
Puck control is part of the reason Sanderson succeeds as an all-round defenseman. Using his frame, skating, and hockey sense, it’s hard to knock the puck off his stick when he picks it up. He is able to dodge the opposition and skate up the ice all while keeping the puck in his control. Having this ability facilitates many other aspects of Sanderson’s game.
In order to be an effective defenseman in this day and age, the player needs to play well with the puck as well as away from it. Misfeldt identified this as a strength in Sanderson’s skillset. I agree with his thinking that it can tie a lot of his game together. It is reassuring that Sanderson is more than someone who can play well off the puck in his own end. Misfledt does not think his offensive skills will warrant Sanderson becoming a significant producer at the NHL level, but he does think that Sanderson is a future NHL player and could play significant minutes. That does coincide with Kournianos’ conclusion.
A shorter take on Sanderson was made by Josh Bell in this March 26 post at The hockey Writers. It is a post where Bell identified nine potential defensemen that could be the second best defenseman behind Drysdale. Sanderson is on this list and Bell noted that he was looking more and more like the one.
Sanderson is one of those players who does everything right and makes it look effortless. He’s a very good skater who sees the ice well, allowing him to use his feet or his puck skills to burn opponents. He’s also solid in his own end, making him truly a complete package for such a young player. He’s definitely a step behind Drysdale, but there’s no question that he’s a very strong contender to be selected as the second defenseman in the upcoming draft.
Bell also came away from his viewings of Sanderson that his skating, vision, and defensive play are all pluses. There is not much here to chew on other than that he really could be the next defenseman named after Drysdale.
Further supporting the notion that Sanderson does a lot of things well is this short snippet by Ben Kerr at Last Word on Hockey. This is a bit dated as it is from a post in December 19, 2019 where he was going through the top prospects at the time. Kerr listed Sanderson at #21, a ranking that might increase should Kerr do it again in the near future. He had this to write about the defenseman:
Sanderson plays a strong two-way game that is based upon his excellent skating ability. He moves well in both directions and has very good edgework, agility, and pivots. This allows him to cover a lot of ice. Sanderson can join the rush or pinch at the blue line and still get back defensively. He shows good passing skills and has a decent point shot and a good release on his wrist shot. Good gap control and strong defensive instincts allow him to play against the other team’s top line.
Again, plenty to like here. Again, Kerr identified his skating as a plus and notes that it helps him in both directions. Kerr also notes that Sanderson does have some offensive skills; perhaps nothing incredible but there is something.
Between the different sources, I do not think it is unfair to categorize Sanderson as someone who skates well. Maybe not as the fastest defenseman, but well enough to be an asset. Likewise, Sanderson appears to be someone who understands the defensive zone well and can also contribute going forward. He may not be someone who produces a lot, but he could be someone who could be valuable for any team’s blueline in the NHL.
A Little Video
Some video of Sanderson is instructive in terms of how well he takes on opposing players coming at him, how he wins pucks, and how he handles himself physically without taking a penalty. One of the best videos I can recommend is Yannick St-Pierre’s video profile of Sanderson on his Youtube channel, Draft Dynasty. He uses plenty of clips from the US U-18 team against both USHL and college teams.
You can see from the clips - he wears #8 for the USNTDP - that Sanderson is certainly brave enough to pinch in on offense, but not to a point where he doing so recklessly. It speaks to the USNTDP’s organization on the ice that someone is generally back to cover, but it also speaks to Sanderson’s own awareness as far as when to pinch and making it count as much as he can. You can also see him wisely using his reach with his stick to make pokechecks without risking a tripping penalty or a slash as well as throwing hits that are entirely legal and effective. St-Pierre specifically noted that Sanderson was very good in one-on-one defending from the games he watched. That is definitely a plus if that is the norm for Sanderson. (Aside: St-Pierre put this up on January 30, which is about when the opinions for Sanderson started to become more and more favorable.)
For those who want to see more highlights of Sanderson, the Prospect Film Room - which is apparently Kournianos’ channel? - has eight minutes and forty-one seconds of Sanderson putting in the work for the USNTDP. The video was uploaded on February 17 and the description is telling that Sanderson could be the next defenseman picked after Drysdale as well as the top American defenseman available.
You can see some of the offensive skills that Sanderson could bring to the table. I especially liked how he reacted to a potential odd man rush (starting from the slot, in case Youngstown won the puck), joined it as a trailer, and fired a great shot to the far post at about 4:24 into this video. There is plenty of good stuff here.
To round things out, here is a short video from PuckProspects that is a highlight reel of Sanderson’s production at the Five Nations tourney back in February. This tournament is kind of a warm-up for the World U-18s and Sanderson put on a show. Combined with the previous video, you can see some of the offensive skills he has. I would like to think that has helped him garner more attention as 2019-20 went on.
I do not know if it will translate to the next level, but Sanderson’s shot looked hard and low on his goals. He did receive some power play time and the assists come from him getting deeper into the zone as opposed to just making a simple pass from the point. The one that starts at 1:08 is particularly impressive.
An Opinion of Sorts
There is a lot to like about Sanderson and I will go as far as to say that every NHL team would appreciate having a prospect like him in their system. He has good size. He knows how to use it to be effective and without costing his team a shorthanded situation. He can fire the puck well when he has the chance and his passing is fairly solid. Off the puck, he is very good at making reads on opposing players and making good decisions at both ends of the rink. There is not really anything about him that seems deficient. I may be reading in between the lines, but the lack of production with the USNTDP suggests that one should not expect a very high offensive upside. Even then, there are enough clips where he is contributing with the puck on offense that he will not be devoid of offense at the next level. He may not become that #1, do-everything-great defenseman to lead a blueline, but he could very well be that very trustworthy defender who can do a lot of things well. If he could, then I suspect he would be a top-ten pick in the 2020 draft.
He might become one anyway. Going back to the beginning of this post, NHL teams are always looking for defensemen. After Drysdale goes, teams who are looking for a defensive prospect for their future are going to be looking hard at the likes of Sanderson, Kaiden Guhle, and Braden Schneider. If a team’s scouts loves either of those players, then I can see them making a rather passionate argument to ensure their name is high up on their draft board. Similar to how Detroit snagged Seider, Edmonton took Broberg, and Arizona went with Victor Soderstrom last season. Most rankings together in the February through April timeframe consistently have Sanderson in the top 15. As much as I would like to argue that players like Zegras, Boldy, Podkolzin, Caufield, and Newhook were (and are) better players to take a chance on, the NHL organizations see it differently and I at least have to respect that. Going back to Jake Sanderson, the passionate argument for him may not be a difficult one to make. Sure, other prospects available may have more offensive flash and skill and upside, but 18-year old defensemen who understand the position, skate well, and do so in a very disciplined fashion do not come along often. Again, there is a lot to like with him. I can agree that he could very well be the top non-Drysdale defensive prospect of the 2020 NHL Draft class.
Now, do I want the New Jersey Devils to take him? I am not so sure. On the one hand, defense seems like a need. If we assume that Ty Smith is NHL-bound in 2020-21, the pool of defensemen features plenty of “defensive defensemen” and Reilly Walsh, who could be a free agent risk since he is going back to Harvard for his senior season. The Devils could stand to take a high-end defenseman prospect. Say what you want about Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotyuk, and so forth, but Sanderson would at least have way better odds of making it to the NHL than the system past Smith.
On the other hand, is Sanderson the kind of defender the Devils should be taking in 2020? The impression that I get is that Sanderson’s offensive upside is the only real question. Maybe it blossoms with the University of North Dakota, but if he does not then he is basically a way better version of what we hope out of the group of Bahl, Okohotyuk, Misyul, Vukojevich, and McCarthy. Finding a NHL player is always a good thing. But it would sting if it would come at the potential expense of missing out on a more talented offensive player.
This leads me to why this is more of a challenge for a team like New Jersey. I think their decision making with respect to Sanderson should be based on what happens around them. If they pick Drysdale with their first pick in the first round, then there is no real need to get Sanderson too. They would have the best defenseman in the draft, period. I definitely do not think Sanderson should be in the conversation for their top-ten pick. Even without Drysdale available, taking Sanderson over potentially Rossi, Holtz, or Perfetti would be a massive disappointment. I also definitely do not think he will fall that far in the draft for the reasons I just described. He will not likely be available at all with Vancouver’s first rounder, assuming the Devils have it. Is he worth taking with Arizona’s pick? It would be sensible and even likely. I am a bit uneasy about it. If the Devils really feel they need a defenseman and Drysdale is gone, then it will be very tempting. Yet, I do not know if Sanderson is really going to help out the Devils in the long term like Anton Lundell (whom Mike profiled), Jack Quinn (who Chris profiled), Dawson Mercer (who Alex profiled), Connor Zary, or Seth Jarvis would among others. What it comes down to is a matter of which would you rather have: A seemingly safe and solid defenseman prospect like Sanderson, or a more offensive forward that can help out in multiple ways.
I like Sanderson quite a bit as a prospect. I think he will bolster the defensive part of any team’s prospect pool. I can definitely be fine with New Jersey taking him at #10 provided they took an offensive talent like Holtz, Rossi, or Perfetti at #6. I think it would be OK. I just do not know whether he would be the best option for the Devils. But I will wonder if the other available players with higher upsides and more tantalizing skillsets at #10 would end up being the better pick. If they have the Vancouver pick, then they could take a chance on William Wallinder, Helge Grans, or Emil Andrae for a defenseman prospect to fill the gap left behind by Smith and potentially Walsh. That may be the smarter play for the Devils. And it could all be moot should another team jump at the chance to take Sanderson higher than most expect - which really should not be a surprise given what happened at least year’s draft and the previous fifteen years of drafts.
I like a lot of what I read and saw of Jake Sanderson. Now I want to know what is your take on Sanderson as a prospect. What do you think of his game? Are you impressed with what he is good at? What would you like him to see him improve upon? Do you think he is he the second best defenseman in the 2020 NHL Draft Class? Do you want the Devils to take him? Leave your answers and other thoughts about Sanderson in the comments. Thank you for reading.