Every Thursday, NHL.com will look ahead to the 2020 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.
Jake Sanderson is projected to be the highest-selected United States-born player in the 2020 NHL Draft at Bell Centre in Montreal on June 26-27.
The 6-foot-1, 186-pound left-shot defenseman for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 team also ranks among the top U.S. players at his position in the past decade.
"I'd be shocked if Jake Sanderson isn't selected top 10 in the draft," NTDP U-18 coach Seth Appert said. "He plays the game so efficiently, defends so hard and can jump into the play and add offense ... he's the prototypical modern-age defenseman. I know other defensemen get more notoriety because of the points they put up, but the beauty of Jake Sanderson is the more you watch him, the more you start to appreciate what an unbelievable defender he is."
NTDP associate coach Nick Fohr oversees the defensemen, and in his nine seasons with the program has worked with several players currently competing in the NHL, including Seth Jones (Columbus Blue Jackets), Zach Werenski (Blue Jackets), Noah Hanifin (Calgary Flames) and Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins). He believes Sanderson ranks among that elite group.
"Sandy is right in that mix of the top three guys I've coached here, if not the top guy," Fohr said. "That's still to be determined based on how he develops and where he goes, but this is something we've been talking about since last year. Somebody asked me last season where he'd fit, and I said he's already in my top five and that was as an under-17 player."
Sanderson has nine points (three goals, six assists) during a five-game point streak, 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists) in 41 games this season and is the U-18 team's captain. He's No. 11 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters.
But his ability and impact go far beyond the score sheet.
"Sanderson is an outstanding talent capable of taking charge and controlling the play with his elite skating, sharp presence of mind and high-end puck skills," Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said.
Sanderson also could be the first player born in Montana to play in the NHL. He was born in Whitefish and lived there full time after his father, Geoff Sanderson, retired after a 17-season NHL career in 2008.
"It was like a hideaway spot for my dad in between seasons," Jake said. "I wouldn't say we did hockey 24/7 when I was living there. There was a lot of other stuff to do. During the summer we would go fishing and in the winter we'd do a lot of skiing."
When Sanderson did play hockey, he started as a forward. But at age 10 he transitioned to defenseman because of one important trait he possessed.
"I was playing forward, but at the time I was also pretty good at backwards skating, so defense was a good fit," he said. "Players are getting faster at skating forward, so every team is going to need defensemen who can backward skate even faster."
He's been able to perfect his craft while rounding out his overall defensive game at the NTDP.
"Him playing defense was a product of him wanting to play with some friends when the only spot available on the team was defense," Geoff Sanderson said. "He's played forward but has always gravitated towards playing defense. He wanted to be a goalie in hockey, a goalie in soccer, a catcher in baseball, so I think that the equipment, his backwards skating and skating ability, made him enjoy the role as a defenseman. I didn't influence him in any way."
Sanderson, who will play next season at the University of North Dakota, has been able to perfect his craft while rounding out his defensive game at the NTDP.
"What I've found through my years at the NTDP is that inner drive and internal clock that makes the good players great, and Sandy has that 'it' factor," Fohr said. "You can watch 15 video clips with him, and if there's two bad ones he's walking out of there [ticked] off about the bad ones. He's driven to be not one of the best, but the best, and there's a big difference there."
Sanderson also had two assists, was plus-2 and named Most Valuable Player of the USA Hockey BioSteel All-American Game on Jan. 20. He finished first in the on-ice testing of 10 different categories a day before the game, placing first in weave agility and reaction, and second in transition agility and transition agility with puck.
"The game is all about skating and keeping up both ways," Geoff Sanderson said. "At a young age it was power skating for all my boys. That's where it starts and that's what got Jake to where he is now.
"He's probably 25 pounds heavier than when he entered the program, so he's that much stronger in the corners, able to hold onto the puck a little bit longer and fend guys off with the strength he's put on."
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