The Ottawa Senators tear down and rebuild has been painful to watch over the past five years, but the silver lining all the way along has been the future.
Someday all the picks and prospects would arrive and dazzle this city’s fan base. Or the assets would be packaged up in deals to improve the team. With names like Tkachuk, Stutzle, Batherson, Norris, Pinto, Chabot and DeBrincat, all 25 and under, that day has arrived.
The Senators are still missing some key pieces – and the ones they have haven’t quite come together as a team just yet – but the kids are definitely all right.
20 year old defenceman Jake Sanderson is the latest young stud to arrive on the scene for Ottawa, and if his first month in the league is any indication, he has a chance to be the best of the bunch.
At the 2020 NHL Draft, the Senators had the number 3 and 5 overall selections. Sanderson was selected at 5, two picks after the Sens got Tim Stutzle. There’s a long way to go, of course, but if the league had a do-over on that draft right now, there’s a very good chance that Stutzle would be a New York Ranger and Sanderson and LA King.
Sanderson’s emergence has been especially impressive. He’s had a few glitchy moments here and there, learning that some things that worked for him in college hockey don’t work in the NHL. Unlike young forwards whose mistakes are well-insulated and not nearly as glaring, this is a process is supposed to take years for young defencemen.
But Sanderson didn’t get that memo.
With Thomas Chabot out of the lineup this week with a concussion, Sanderson has been the go-to guy in all situations. In Wednesday’s 4-1 win over Buffalo, Sanderson had more ice time than any other skater on the ice. A month ago, this kid hadn’t played a single game in the NHL and now he was getting almost 25 minutes of ice time, leading all defencemen with nearly 5 minutes of power play time and almost seven minutes of penalty killing time.
Let’s put that in perspective. Thomas Chabot – the club’s $8 million a year defenceman – hasn’t had seven minutes of penalty killing time all season… in total!
It’s often said that if you want to know how a coach feels about a player, don’t ask him. Just check the scoresheet and see how much ice time he gave him. D.J. Smith was singing Sanderson’s praises after the game.
“The way Jake played tonight, it’s just a glimpse into the future of him playing against everyone’s top lines,” said Smith. “With the game on the line, he’s blocking shots. It’s a heck of an effort.”
Suggesting that Sanderson’s game was “a glimpse into the future” is an odd way to describe the player who’s your best defenceman… right now. At age 20, one month into his NHL career, it’s not remotely a stretch to say that Sanderson has surpassed both Chabot and Zub as the club’s most talented defenceman.
Sanderson is the guy everyone wants – a poised puck mover who buys time and space for himself, creates offence from the back end while still taking care of his own zone. And he looks more comfortable with each passing game.
“Yeah, I think so,” said Sanderson. “I’m grateful for the playing time I have. So I try to make the most of it. It’s really nice having Hammer (Travis Hamonic) on my right side with me. It’s nice having a veteran guy on my right side to kind of guide me through those tough times.
No matter how you feel about Hamonic’s game, good or bad, his acquisition last season was worthwhile just based on the way Sanderson feels about playing with him. Sanderson shoehorns his appreciation for Hamonic into almost every media conversation.
The Senators definitely have a lot of great young players to be excited about. But Sanderson has a chance to be something special. If he looks this good after one month, what will he look like in three years?
By Steve Warne