Perhaps the most relieved person to see Jake Sanderson back on the ice at the Buffalo Prospects Showcase last month was Jake Sanderson himself.
Two hand surgeries in five months and a fight with COVID-19 protocols put a damper on an otherwise fantastic campaign for Sanderson. He signed his entry-level NHL contract with the Ottawa Senators in late March. Had he stayed healthy, he would undoubtedly have made it into the roster to close out the season.
His dominating play against Boston in the prospect showcase — and his subsequent preseason action so far — leaves no doubt he’s ready to go full steam ahead this season.
Sanderson said he was nervous, and how could he not be after seven months away? But ask any scout which players stood out the most that day at Showcase, and they’ll point you to the young American defender.
As we approach the regular season, Sanderson should play an important role in Ottawa’s resurgence to become a competitive team once again. Management believes him, his teammates know him and Sanderson thinks he’s ready to go.
So, Sens Sickos, hop on the Sanderson-style train — if you weren’t already.
Sanderson has taken his game to a new level with each passing season. He was a budding star with the Edge Prep School program before joining the USNTDP in 2018-19. Sanderson served as captain both years there, earning the coveted 2020 USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year. He helped North Dakota become NCHC champions in the NCAA and won gold with the United States at the world junior championships. Sanderson had more than one point per game in 23 NCAA games last year and was also named to the United States Olympic roster.
But wasted time is wasted time, no matter how much of a prospect you are. During the rookie tournament, Sanderson said getting back into the rhythm of the game was the hardest thing for him. He said the most important thing coming into training camp was getting back to his game and showing he could play the first four minutes.
Ottawa’s greatest long-term strength is up front. Led by veterans Brady Tkachuk, Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux, and youngsters Josh Norris, Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson and Shane Pinto, Ottawa’s offensive lineup has a new and improved look for 2022-23.
But defensively, there is a lot to be desired behind Thomas Chabot. And that’s where Sanderson comes in.
“I feel pretty confident with the group we have (on the blue line),” Sanderson said. “I want to be the rock at the back, the first guy on the bench when we’re down or up a goal. I don’t feel any extra pressure, I’m confident with the other defenders we have too.
Sanderson, who just turned 20, is a terrific skater who seems to thrive under pressure. He does a great job of dodging forechecks and his quick acceleration lets him out of trouble. In fact, Sanderson already looks like a seasoned NHL veteran based on his preseason action alone.
Sanderson recorded his first point on the exhibition slate on October 1 against Montreal, a power play assist. Senators coach DJ Smith wasn’t afraid to deploy him against other quality talent and throw him to the wolves early. That kind of trust can go a long way, especially for a young team that doesn’t have high expectations yet.
“He thinks about the game like an NHL veteran,” said a scout. “Brainfarts are rare. He knows where his teammates will be. He can lead the power play. He is exactly what Ottawa needs.
Sanderson likes what general manager Pierre Dorion has done this summer to flesh out the roster, especially as a young player looking for a challenge. Although the defensive core hasn’t been hit much, Sanderson is keen on what this group can do.
“Pierre made some really good moves, and I think everyone on the team is super excited about that,” Sanderson said. “I know to see Claude Giroux and DeBrincat coming, they are very big names. Just seeing them every day in the locker room is quite surreal.
According to the fan, « success » can mean a lot of things for the Ottawa Senators this season. Is it a ranking improvement? A place in the playoffs? Something more? Again, it depends on who you ask. But if the young core can flourish – or at least make mistakes without punishment – that will be a real sign of victory.
The future is bright for Ottawa, and Sanderson will be a catalyst moving forward.
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