In every NHL draft, there is always one player that is ranked fairly high but ends up getting picked much later on due either teams going in other directions or scouts getting scared heading into the first round. When a team finally snags him up in the first round, a lot of analysts clamours that this team got a steal. Some players in this category that come to mind are Seth Jones, Jakob Chychrun, and Joseph Veleno. While the odds of this happening aren’t too high, perhaps this years’ version of that phenomenon could be Jake Sanderson who the Leafs need to jump on if he remains available at #15.
Why did I say the odds of it happening are low? There’s a bit of recent bias with him slotted to be taken in the top five due to strong playoff performances from players like Victor Hedman and Miro Heiskanen. It remains a good possibility he could be taken very early, but let’s assume he miraculously falls all the way down to the Leafs pick.
He is currently ranked high by scouts and rightfully so. As I mentioned in my contribution to TLN’s roundtable discussion from earlier this week on who the Leafs should draft, he appears to be the complete package as a defenceman with good size and abilities at both ends of the ice. He started the 2019-20 season much lower on scouts lists but has gradually moved his way up into the upper half of the first round. This is evident by his draft rankings that appear to be all over the place, with him going as low as 15th and as high as fourth overall:
|ELITE PROSPECTS||ISS Hockey||CRAIG BUTTON||BOB MCKENZIE||CENTRAL SCOUTING (NA)||DOBBER PROSPECTS|
The son of former NHL left-winger Geoff Sanderson appears to be on track to have a lengthy NHL career in his own right. He stands at 6’1” and 185 pounds at age 18, plays well both offensively and defensively, is a great skater, and his game is compared to players such as Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy. Both of the aforementioned guys would be a great fit on the current Leafs roster, so I can imagine getting Jake Sanderson would make Kyle Dubas a happy GM.
This past season saw him split time between the USDP and the USHL, where he was able to find success in both leagues. Starting with the former, he put up seven goals, 22 assists, and 29 points in 47 USDP games. He only played 19 games in the USHL but played well in his limited time there, scoring two goals, 12 assists, and 14 points. His production in both leagues saw a progression from the previous season and I believe these numbers will only increase with more time fine-tuning his game.
Words can only tell so much of the story, so let’s watch a few clips to get an idea of what kind of a player Sanderson is. Before we do that, here’s his scouting report from Elite Prospects so you can get a basic sense of his game and see how it is reflected in his on-ice abilities:
Sanderson recognizes appropriate times to join the rush and pinches on opposing wingers well, sealing off pass options along the boards to prevent breakouts. He’s got a quick wrister as well that can create havoc. He’s calculated, disciplined, physical, and creative. There just isn’t much that he can’t do in the defensive zone at an exceptionally high level.
The major takeaway I got from watching some of his highlights is that Sanderson is a player with great hockey IQ and can make good defensive plays to either maintain offensive pressure or create a goal. There’s a lot of footage to go over so grab the popcorn and get ready to enjoy the Sanderson show. As a reminder, he is wearing #8 and #48 in the videos.
Say what you will about Jake Sanderson’s offensive game, he’s shown some really impressive flashes of playmaking in the o-zone that suggest his effectiveness in the opposing end of the rink, too. Oh and his zone entry data is second to none in the USHL. pic.twitter.com/VrvBytgKKn
— Joey Padmanabhan (@joeypad2) June 23, 2020
As I was watching this clip, I immediately got flashes of peak Jake Gardiner moving around the offensive end trying to make something happen and tiring out the defending team. Sanderson constantly had his feet moving and was reading the play well to determine where he needed to be and what he should do with or without the puck. His zone entry was superb and it set the tone for this sequence that resulted in two quality scoring chances. Had this resulted in a goal, it would easily be a highlight-reel tally.
Here’s a clip that demonstrates his transition game:
— Tony Ferrari (@theTonyFerrari) July 3, 2020
He was in a good position to receive the pass and was able to seamlessly fake-out the defender deep in his own end. From there, he flies down the ice into the offensive zone and moves to the left boards before making the pass that resulted in a goal. All of this would not be possible without that first move to get past his man, which is a sign of good puck protection.
This next one has him win a puck battle down low before carrying it down to the opposite side of the rink:
— Evan (@Shattenkirk) May 26, 2020
As I mentioned earlier, he is blessed with great size and that includes a large wingspan. Sanderson uses that to his advantage in this next one, as he kept the puck onside that resulted in his team scoring moments later.
— Clare McManus (@claremcmanuss) June 26, 2020
While it’s not a perfect example, Sanderson demonstrates his willingness to play the physical side of the game:
Oh, another thing about Jake Sanderson? One of the best hitters in his class. pic.twitter.com/sh2iMoBqb1
— Joey Padmanabhan (@joeypad2) September 17, 2020
Finally, let’s take a look at a few of his goals:
Jake Sanderson, get to know this defenseman's name.
— NHL (@NHL) June 26, 2020
All three examples showcase his willingness to jump up into the play and take a shot from a high percentage area. Today’s defenceman needs to be able to have this type of playstyle in their arsenal and it’s impressive to see him do this at a high level already along with a solid slap shot.
By no means is Sanderson a finished product and will definitely need a year or two of further development before he can realistically crack an NHL roster. He will get the chance to do that with the University of North Dakota, which he has committed to for the upcoming season. Sanderson will surely be given every chance to succeed at college hockey for however long he stays there. If he continues his trajectory the way things appear to be heading, he could become one of the better two-way defensemen in the NHL. For a team like the Leafs that are in need of further defensive help, Sanderson could solve a lot of the teams’ issues in spite of not being a right-shot defenceman.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of the piece, Sanderson is ranked all over the place and could either be taken in the top five or slip down to around the middle of the first round. The chances of the latter occurring aren’t high, but Toronto needs to jump on him should he find himself without an NHL team by the time the Leafs step up to the podium.
All stats unless otherwise noted are from Elite Prospects.