Jake Sanderson of the U.S. NTDP skates up ice against Notre Dame. Courtesy of NHL.com
When the season began last fall, the U.S. National Team Development Program U18 team had a lot of question marks scattered across the roster. Depending on who you asked, players such as Thomas Bordeleau, Ty Smilanic, and Tyler Kleven were all players who had the potential to be selected in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft. Jake Sanderson was another name that seemed to have a shot but the defender was young for the draft class and showed a very raw toolset last season playing for the U.S. NTDP U17 team. Fast-forward to March 2020, a pandemic hits and shuts the season down as Sanderson was beginning his ascent into the top-ten on most draft boards.
Player Information courtesy of Elite Prospects
Sanderson’s season was on the rise from about January on and his play seemed to really hit its stride coming out of the Biosteel All-American game where the prospect world seemed to take notice. He was able to show off his skating, offensive game, and defensive game in one marquee event. The player that came into the year with a fairly raw toolset finally had the opportunity to show that his tools had matured and become much more refined in the first few months of the season. Jake Sanderson began to work his way to the forefront of the conversation as it pertained to the second-best defender in the draft class. Two months later in March, he has slowly worked his way into the conversation with Jamie Drysdale as the top blueliner overall.
Sanderson has laid his claim to the title of top defensive blueliner. His rise has made him a near sure-fire top-ten selection in mid-October when the NHL expects to have the draft. The questions range from whether he will be able to contribute offensively enough or whether a team may be making a mistake by selecting a player whose calling card is the defensive side of the game. Can Jake Sanderson get to that next level offensively? Can his raw tools translate into a solid two-way game?
Skating and Mobility
While not flashy, Sanderson is a strong skater. He doesn’t have the same elite dynamism as a skater that was highlighted in the Jamie Drysdale Deep Dive but is stronger on the puck and on his feet as he weaves through the neutral zone with high-level edge work and good acceleration. He has the ability to use his edgework to manipulate forecheckers and his pull away speed to attack the offensive blueline. In the clip below, Sanderson (#8 in blue) collects the puck in the corner. He opens himself up to the entirety of the defensive zone and faints passing behind the net. Once the forechecker bites, Sanderson is able to pull the puck across his body and immediately begin moving up ice. This small amount of separation allows for the NTDP defender to carry the puck through the neutral zone. As he approaches the blueline, he passes the puck off to Thomas Bordeleau (#9) at the wall and then continues his path down the nearside of the slot. His path draws defenders deep, opening up a passing lane for Bordeleau to send a cross-ice pass leading to a goal.
The above display of skating is a perfect example of how Jake Sanderson can utilize his smooth skating. One of the keys to Sanderson’s mobility is the fact that he is an extremely fluid skater. His transitions and pivots are crisp and controlled, rarely looking like his footwork is lagging behind or getting too far ahead of him. In the next clip, we get a look at his ability to track back into the defensive zone and then calmly turn up ice and control transition because of his skating. When he stops up behind his own net, he is able to survey the ice. When he moves through the defensive zone, he is closed in on along the wall but slips away from the pressure. As he approaches the blueline, he passes the puck off and allows his teammates to work deep into the offensive zone.
Where Sanderson lacks a bit of the dynamism and excitement that Drysdale brings, he brings a stable and sturdy presence as a puck carrier and skater. He does an excellent job of skating through contact and protecting the puck. His quick feet and excellent footwork allow him to be a highly aggressive player when attempting to keep the puck in the offensive zone. As we see below, the young American blueliner has the fluidity in his footwork that allows him to change the angle at the blueline and patrol the offensive zone. When he pinches down the wall, he is able to shake off the defensive player with ease and move the puck below the goal line and then retreat back to his positioning. The ease of his mobility allows him to choose his spots with high efficiency.
With such fluid skating, as seen above, Sanderson has quietly become one of the best transition defenders when moving the puck up the ice. He plays in the USHL which may give his numbers a bit of a boost in comparison to the CHL but courtesy of InStat, Sanderson averages 4.85 zone entries per game which are ahead of Drysdale (3.84), Kaiden Guhle (2.85) and William Wallinder (2.55). All three defenders are widely considered strong in transition and while they all play in different leagues, Sanderson averages more zone entries by a not-insignificant margin.
When it comes to breaking the puck out of his zone, the NTDP captain is even more impressive as he averages 7.31 zone exits or breakouts per game. When looking at the same group of defenders, Drysdale (6.0) comes closest followed by Guhle (5.74) and Wallinder (4.31). While Wallinder’s numbers do improve when you take away his games at the Allsvenskan level, they still do not come close to Sanderson’s. What is particularly encouraging about Sanderson’s transition numbers are that they are virtually unchanged when you separate his play against the USHL vs. NCAA competition.
Sanderson is an extremely smart breakout artist. His ability to utilize a number of his tools is what makes him such an efficient player in transition. We’ve seen him use his skating ability to move the puck up the ice and that is truly his strongest trait in the offensive transition game. He gets the puck into the neutral zone with his skating and then makes the decision to either pass or skate the puck into the offensive zone. While doesn’t use his passing to exit the zone as often as some of his counterparts – 44.1% of his breakouts are passes compared to 61.3% for Drysdale and 62.5% for Guhle – he is adept at putting the puck on his teammate’s stick efficiently when he needs too.
With excellent skating ability, Sanderson’s offensive transition plays often lead to offensive chances. Sanderson is an intimidating force as a puck carrier because of how quickly he can build up speed at back off opposing defenders. He isn’t afraid to skate at his counterpart allowing them to make the first move and then making a move whether it be passing off or utilizing his skilled, yet inconsistent, puck handling. In the play below, Sanderson identifies the open space along his side of the neutral zone. As he steps up, he receives the pass from his defensive partner and begins his assault on the opposition. Utilizing a play he made his bread and butter this year, Sanderson passes off at the blueline and then gets a return pass as he skates by the defender who steps up at the blueline. This gives Sanderson the option of stopping up, circling behind the net or attacking the net as he does in this video.
This type of attack in transition is where Sanderson is at his best. His ability to break into the offensive zone and attack at a high pace is what really seemed to take a step as the year wore on. His confidence in his ability to take chances and recover grew and his play driving ability came to the forefront.
Sanderson is a very aggressive defender in transition. His ability to step up in the neutral zone with good timing and the ability to win his battles or disrupt the opposition’s path on a regular basis is what stands out. Sanderson has excellent defensive awareness and rarely finds himself on the wrong side of the puck, consistently recognizing when to track back in the neutral zone and when to step up into his man. In the clip below, Sanderson begins mirroring the attacker in the neutral zone and as soon as the pass is sent up ice, he steps up to break it up just outside of the offensive blueline. The puck bounces back out to Sanderson at center ice and he immediately identifies a teammate pushing up ice and sends a pass his way. After a quick trip in the offensive zone, Sanderson wins a puck race back into his defensive zone and is able to elude the forecheck, not once but twice, bringing the puck under control.
The above play illustrates how important Sanderson’s effortless skating is to his game and just how crisp his edge work and agility are. Without his high-end footwork, Sanderson likely has to track the loose puck deep into his own zone, bringing the level of threat to an unnecessary level, even if he has control of the puck. Being able to evade pressure the way he does here is integral to a defender’s ability to make a good play up ice. If Sanderson wants to be as aggressive as he is in the neutral zone, then he will need to continue to get faster and stronger as he develops.
A defender’s job in the modern-day NHL is to prevent an offense from even having a chance to begin. The best rearguards in today’s game are excellent blueline play stoppers. The understanding of when to step up and when to angle off along with the willingness to do either shape Sanderson’s zone entry defense. As we can see in the following clip, the American defender effortlessly sweep the puck off of the attacking forward’s stick as they cross the blueline. In one motion, Sanderson has the ability to pull the puck away from danger and corral it himself. Stopping up behind the net and allowing his team to get set, Sanderson then breaks up the ice. Again using the give-and-go tactic at the offensive blueline, Sanderson battles for the loose puck in the corner until help arrives and then gets back into position to defend should the opponent come out with the puck.
Many modern-day defensemen tend to lack physicality, especially the highly skilled and puck-moving blueliners, but Sanderson has shown that he is more than willing to engage physically. His ability to close off defenders along the wall in impressive as he utilizes good body positioning and an active and accurate stick is among the best in the class. Below we have an example of his ability to pivot and close on an attacker. He gets the puck back and makes a short, safe pass to begin the breakout.
Stepping into an attacking player is a risky move at times and only becomes riskier in open ice. While it doesn’t seem to be his go-to move, he has shown a willingness to do it. He is successful because of his good balance on his feet and he is aware of how the play is developing. He doesn’t throw massive hits that take him out of the play, rather he steps into the player and impedes their path while staying upright himself.
In-Zone Defensive Play
The area of the game that young defenders always seem to have an issue with is their in-zone defensive play. While Sanderson isn’t perfect here, there is a lot to work with. He has a high-IQ and understands positioning in his zone. He protects the net-front quite well and knows when to leave his post to engage along the wall. There were moments where he seemed to be overpowered a bit by bigger, stronger forwards, particularly against NCAA teams. One of the most impressive parts of Sanderson’s defensive game is the rate he wins challenges, a statistic courtesy of InStat that accounts for one-on-one battles. His 66.3% challenge percentage surpasses just about all of the top defenders in the class. With Drysdale (57.5%). Guhle (60.4%), Wallinder (57.0%), and Braden Schneider (59.5%) all coming in well behind him, Sanderson is in a class of his own when it comes to winning one-on-one battles. The other factor is how often a player is engaging in ‘Challenges’. Sanderson is involved in more defensive and neutral zone challenges per game than any player on this list with the exception of Guhle and Schnieder in the defensive zone – 10.3 for Sanderson and Schneider while Guhle paces the group with 11.0, while most other players from the 2020 draft class sit in the 6-8 defensive zone challenges per-game range.
When it comes to dealing with backpressure and retrieving the puck in his own zone on a dump in, Sanderson makes good decisions. He