Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

The Ottawa Senators are showing us that the future that has been advertised for so long is now as they continue to deliver early in the season. The young guns are stepping up as the team looks to continue to build on their three-game winning streak. With the team scoring an impressive 16 goals during this stretch, it’s easy to point at the offence when attributing reasons for their success. Rightfully so, as Sens fans have rarely been treated to this kind of offensive explosion in the past few seasons.

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This quality goal-scoring performance casts a cloud over the strong performance of the team’s defence. They’ve only given up five goals during this win streak and are showing signs of big improvement to start the season.

Thomas Chabot and Jakob Chychrun have been solid on the backend for the Senators. However, a strong argument could be made that none of them has stood out as much as Jake Sanderson. If he continues this strong play, he could become the team’s best defenceman by the end of the season – if he isn’t already, that is. 

Quick and Steady

If teams want to draft and develop a truly elite defenceman, they know they have to play the waiting game. Yes, I know this is true for most prospects. But defencemen experience a lot of growing pains and inconsistent play on their path to becoming mainstays in the NHL. It’s usually seen as a slow and steady progress. When the Senators selected Sanderson with their fifth-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, this was likely what they expected. But as of now, it shows why he climbed the ranks quickly in his draft year.

Offensively, Sanderson surpassed expectations in his rookie season when he put up four goals and 32 points in 77 games. Defensively, we saw a young defenceman make his place on the team and earn bigger roles as the season progressed. Whether it be in the final minutes of a one-goal game or on special teams, head coach DJ Smith had him playing in roles that are atypical for most 20-year-old defensemen.

Jake Sanderson, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, Sanderson proved he could do it and was rewarded accordingly. General manager Pierre Dorion took no time to sign Sanderson to an eight-year, $64.4 million contract extension in the offseason. Typically, young defensemen sign bridge deals to prove their worth after their entry-level deals. Some may have questioned this contract at first, but his strong start to the season is already proving them wrong.

Power Play and Progress

Although the Senators’ season is only four games old, it has been pretty eventful for Sanderson. He started the season on the second power play unit until a strong performance in the 5-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers made head coach DJ Smith raise his eyebrows. 

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During this game, the team scored three power play goals, a feature that is impressive enough in the NHL. But what makes it more impressive is that the second-unit power play scored the first two that game. This second unit power play was at the time quarterbacked by none other than Sanderson, who scored one of the goals on a nice blast from the point. Since that game, the now 21-year-old is riding a three-game point streak, having put up two goals and five points in only four games played this season.

D.J. Smith, Ottawa Senators head coach (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

The biggest vote of confidence by Smith to his young defenceman came before the Washington Capitals visited town two games after the Flyers game. The spot Chabot long had all to himself on the first power play unit had now been given to Sanderson. While he hasn’t scored on the power play since being moved there, he’s been getting valuable offensive experiences with some quality players during this time. 

However, the most noticeable part of his game is his split-second decision-making. In all three zones, it seems like Sanderson always anticipates where the puck will go, and he always knows where it will go next. An example of his clear vision of the game could be seen in their 5-2 against the Tampa Bay Lighting when he sent a stretch pass down the ice to set up captain Brady Tkachuk’s second goal of the game.

The Senators haven’t been put in losing situations as much in their last few games. Whenever this is the case, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Sanderson on the ice in the dying seconds of the game whenever the team is down by a goal. This is a rather uncommon position for a young defenceman with two other top-pairing players on the roster. It’s certainly a testament to how much progress he’s made thus far.

Keeping Up with the Senators

Since their 5-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Senators have been a difficult team to figure out and keep up with. They’ve been firing on all cylinders lately and should take advantage of their long home stretch of games. However, their next opponents are the red-hot Detroit Red Wings, who are visiting for an afternoon game which could be one of the most interesting matchups this season up to now.

It’s becoming safe to say that Sanderson will be a crucial part of the team’s success in Alex DeBrincat’s return since being traded away from Ottawa in the offseason. If he keeps up this play, he could possibly be the team’s top defender by the end of the season and be a key piece for the team. Regardless, Ottawa can enjoy strong performances from their defensive core as they continue to ride the wave.

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