Top U.S. prospect Jake Sanderson waits in Whitefish for NHL future to unfold
It was less than a week ago that the 2019-20 hockey season officially ended for captain Jake Sanderson and his teammates with the Plymouth-based Under-18 National Team Development Program.
Sanderson, the top-ranked American prospect for the 2020 NHL Draft, already had returned to his home in Whitefish, Montana, right after the U18 world championships in Plymouth and Ann Arbor were canceled on March 13.
On March 18, the United States Hockey League voted unanimously to cancel the rest of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Our team was heartbroken," Sanderson said. "We have gone through so much together as a team and we have worked so hard all two years, and to have that taken away from us was very unfair, but it is something we cannot control.
"All of that hard work wasn’t for nothing, though. Our hockey careers still go on. And I know I’ll leave the NTDP with 22 best friends and brothers."
Before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, the year was shaping up as a breakout season for the 17-year-old defenseman, who skyrocketed up the Central Scouting midterm rankings to No. 11 among North American players one year after the NTDP's Jack Hughes was taken first overall by the New Jersey Devils.
Sanderson's stock went up substantially after being named the MVP at the BioSteel All-American Game at USA Hockey Arena in January and he tied for the tournament scoring lead at the Under-18 Five Nations in the Czech Republic in February.
"You've got to take those events step by step and just focus on achieving them one at a time," said Sanderson, the son of former NHL forward Geoff Sanderson, who had 700 career points during a 17-year career. "I just put my head down and keep working."
At the All-American Game in front of more than 200 scouts and front-office personnel from all 31 NHL teams, Sanderson had two assists and was plus-2 in Team Knuble's 6-1 win over Team Gomez. He also finished first in the fastest skating competition among the 40 top prospects from the USHL and his U18 team.
Against Europe's top NHL prospects including Finland's Aatu Raty, the No. 1 prospect for the 2021 draft, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Sanderson had three goals, four assists and was plus-4 in four games and led Team USA to a second-place finish at Five Nations.
(Under-17 NTDP's Luke Hughes, the younger brother of Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks and Jack Hughes, and teammate Chaz Lucius are expected to battle for top American honors next year).
Sanderson's skating is one of the strengths of his game just like his father, who finished second to Washington speedster Peter Bondra at the 1997 NHL All-Star Game's fastest skating competition in San Jose.
Geoff Sanderson, who left a scouting position after two seasons with the New York Islanders in 2012 to spend more time with his three boys and wife Ellen in Calgary, says there appears to be some "pedigree" with Jake's skating, but teaching his sons how to skate just like his father taught him was a conscious decision.
"I was probably a boring coach because the first 20 minutes of every practice was always going up and down the ice, doing edge work, pivots, tight turns," the 48-year-old Sanderson said. "I talked about their blades and steel on the ice, rockers and custom radius, all the custom stuff that a lot of kids don't know about.
"It's not a secret, but one thing I learned being obsessed with skating is the better you are at skating backwards the better you are going to be skating forwards. All the power skating stuff that we did was a lot of backward skating, a lot of giant 'C' cuts going backwards. If you want to be a good hockey player, you have to be an elite skater."
Jake Sanderson, who had seven goals and 22 assists in 47 games in his second season with USA Hockey's development program this year, says there aren't "any minuses" being the son of a former NHL player.
"First he was a dad and he wasn't a coach," Sanderson said. "He didn't freak out if we had a bad game or something because he knows how we would feel in that situation. In the summer, he always gives us training ideas and passes on the stuff he learned."
Geoff Sanderson says he's always "taken a calm approach" to teaching the game and never pushed Jake into higher levels of play if he wasn't ready.
"I've seen enough of these minor hockey league coaches who embarrass themselves behind the bench and I swore I would never be that guy," Sanderson said. "I never put a huge emphasis on winning. Everyone plays. Let's have fun. If I've done my job in practice, I shouldn't have to say a word during the game."
For now, Jake Sanderson will remain in Montana. He plans on returning to Plymouth for spring training at USA Hockey Arena, which is closed until April 13 after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a shelter-in-place order on Monday to halt the spread of the virus.
The dates for the NHL draft combine and NHL draft in Montreal are up in the air depending on the future of the season and playoffs.
"The focus now is to keep working hard and training," Sanderson said. "Once we get back to Michigan, I will spend as much time with my teammates because we know our time is short."
NHL Midterm Central Scouting rankings
(The top 11 North American players for the 2020 NHL Draft)
1. Alexis Lafreniere, LW, Rimouski
2. Quinton Byfield, C, Sudbury
3. Jamie Drysdale, D, Erie
4. Cole Perfetti, C, Saginaw
5. Marco Rossi, C, Ottawa
6. Dawson Mercer, C, Chicoutimi
7. Kaiden Guhle, D, Prince Albert
8. Braden Schneider, D, Brandon
9. Jack Quinn, RW, Ottawa
10. Dylan Holloway, C, Wisconsin
11. Jake Sanderson, D, NTDP