No player projected to go near the top of the 2020 NHL Draft has had a faster rise up the rankings than Jake Sanderson.
The son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson, Jake surged seven spots among North American skaters, from No. 11 on NHL Central Scouting’s midterm list to No. 4 on its final one, placing him just behind fellow defenceman Jamie Drysdale.
While Drysdale is a highly skilled offensive D-man, Sanderson’s all-around game offers plenty of appeal and that could lead to him being the first defenceman off the board.
Regardless, Sanderson is set to gain bragging rights over his father as the top pick in the family (Geoff was selected by the Hartford Whalers in the second round of the 1990 draft) and could one day become the first player born in Montana -- where he was raised and the family spends its summers -- to crack the NHL.
The elder Sanderson, meanwhile, is just one of five players from the Northwest Territories -- and by far the most accomplished -- to make it to The Show.
Here’s what you need to know about the slick-skating defender:
Team: U.S. U18 (NTDP)
Age: 18 (born July 8, 2002)
From: Whitefish, Mont.
Weight: 185 pounds
The University of North Dakota commit was born and raised in Whitefish, but also has faint memories of his father’s stints in Columbus, Phoenix and Edmonton as he wrapped up his 1,104-game career.
The Sandersons later relocated to Calgary as Geoff transitioned from hockey pro to hockey dad, shifting his focus to coaching his three sons who were just starting Timbits hockey.
Sanderson said his father played an invaluable role in his development and he’s leaned on him as he’s gone through the process leading up to the draft.
“Obviously, he helps me a lot and I ask him questions about what his draft was like, and how it was it like and, obviously, ours is a little bit different this year, which is kind of a bummer, but I'm very grateful to have both my parents with me,” Sanderson told Sportsnet over the phone from Montana.
Sanderson -- who is keeping fit by working out at a family friend’s home gym, as well as by mountain biking and running -- said he’s excited at the opportunity to spotlight hockey in Montana -- like his father did with the N.W.T -- should he one day make the NHL.
“I think we kind of have similar stories of growing up in a place where hockey isn't huge. There definitely is hockey in Whitefish -- people love it here -- so I think if I got drafted I think that'd be really cool and kind of put them on the map and hopefully motivate other kids to maybe do the same,” said Sanderson.
Draft board jump
Sanderson isn’t only about to get drafted into the NHL, he could be among the earliest prospects to have their names called (virtually).
After a 2019-20 season when he led all defencemen in the NTDP with 29 points in 47 games, the Montana product has seen his stock soar.
Sanderson chalked up his bump in the rankings to his success in the second half of the season after building confidence against college teams, which his NTDP team played to start the year.
“I just felt more dominant and more confident after playing those college games,” Sanderson said of facing competition in his bracket in the latter part of the campaign.
Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting, raved about Sanderson’s all-around game and said he could take a similar route to defencemen Charlie McAvoy (Bruins), Cale Makar (Avalanche), Zach Werenski (Blue Jackets) and Quinn Hughes (Canucks) by completing a one-and-done season at the college level and then breaking into the NHL.
“He's just such a complete package -- I've never been as impressed with a player in all my years of scouting as I was with him in a prospect game -- he did everything that you want from the player in that one game,” said Marr in reference to Sanderson’s player of the game honours at the BioSteel All-American showcase in January.
“The U18s they've been playing together all year long, but I don't use the word impressive very often, but he was just so impressive.”
Rattling off Sanderson’s skills, Marr praised his ability to read and react to different situations on the ice -- whether that’s through stepping up physically or leading the rush -- and controlling the play from the back end.
“He's got all the requisite skills: he can make the good first pass out of his zone, he's got a good game at the offensive blue line and when it comes to defending, he competes,” said Marr.
Marr said when his team at Central Scouting was meeting to compile the final list, one of the questions that pushed Sanderson up the rankings was, “If you had to build a team around one of these players, which would you want that to be?”
“Jake was one of the more consistent guys that a lot of guys, feet to the fire, when you're talking about putting a team together, you'd like to build around this guy,” he said.
“You know what you're getting: he's a solid player that's going to generate results, be a leader and just bring that character and that presence to which you can make other players around him better and make your team better.”
Top D-man in the draft?
After trailing Drysdale in the rankings for much of the season, Sanderson's late rise has narrowed the gap and maybe even passed him. In Sam Cosentino's final draft rankings, Sanderson ranked fourth and Drysdale sixth.
While Sanderson caught scouts’ attention with his play in the second half, Drysdale did nothing to diminish their views of his high-end offensive talent. Either one could hear their name called first.
“They're two different styles, two different body types, two different games. I think at the NHL level, Jake's offensive production is going to be fine because he moves the puck so well and he sees the ice so well, so ... when you get the top-six forwards on an NHL club and you get them the puck -- good things are going to happen,” noted Marr.
“And Jamie just might be the one that has the puck on his stick a little bit more than Jake, and he can skate, he can dangle, he can make the plays, but he's responsible enough to where he plays a smart game without the puck. So I just think they're two different styles, Jamie has the puck on his stick more often than Jake does and this is why we have them side by side.”
Sanderson said he believes he has more offence to give and was starting to show that as the season went on. And while it may not be of the highlight-reel variety, he says it’s “more efficient.”
“I can create offence without a ton of risk and I can get back in time and defend in my own zone,” he said.
“I think for me, obviously, defence is first, but I think just jumping in the rush after and creating offence with no risk -- it might not be as flashy as everybody else but it has just as much impact as those guys.”
Like father, like son
While Sanderson’s offence may not be as “flashy” as that of some of his peers, it’s his skating that attracts attention.
“(He's) very fluid. Very, very fluid -- this kid's an athlete,” said Marr.
It’s a skill the senior Sanderson was known for as well and passed on to his son.
“Obviously, my dad was a really good skater, too, so he taught me some tricks and stuff and different profiling on skates, so I think having him is pretty nice,” said Sanderson.
“But we do a lot of power skating here in Whitefish, so I think the fundamentals of my skating is getting good on the edges and having that long, efficient stride.”
Sanderson has also started trying to adopt different techniques from the game’s best defencemen -- with the Dallas Stars’ burgeoning star, Miro Heiskanen, being his most recent study.
“I think the way he skates is really cool and he's really efficient, and I think he's really mature for his age, too, how he plays the game,” said Sanderson.
Sound familiar? That’s because a similar skill-set has carried Sanderson up the draft rankings and on track for a career in the NHL.