Some call Joe Pavelski by this name. Others call Steve Rogers and/or Sam Wilson by it. One thing that is undeniable is that, no matter who dons the title, people all around the world know the name Captain America.
At the 2022 World Junior Championship (WJC), defenseman Jake Sanderson will take his turn carrying the shield.
The fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft, Sanderson is an Ottawa Senators prospect and the son of longtime NHLer Geoff Sanderson. And while he’s been displaying great growth in his game this season for the University of North Dakota, he’s set to play the role of captain for Team USA at this year’s WJC. As a returning member from last year’s gold medal team, his experience on that team will come in handy as he is one of just six players returning from that team. An even more important factor is that on that gold medal squad, he was the leader in terms of average time on ice.
After making such a huge impact for the Americans as an 18-year-old, Sanderson will look to take his game to another level as a 19-year-old.
Sanderson is a Two-Way Force
When a defenseman is drafted as high as fifth overall, you’re more than likely looking at a player that can impact the game at both ends of the ice. That remains true in the case of Sanderson. His calling card in last year’s WJC was how steady he was in his own zone. He was routinely tasked with facing the opposition’s toughest assignments in the most critical moments. He finished the tournament with just two points (both assists), but his plus/minus rating was plus-7, a good indicator that even though he wasn’t actively chipping in on offense as much as he may have liked, he was still able to help keep the puck on his teammates’ sticks rather than the bad guys’.
It is worth noting, however, that this season with North Dakota, his Sophomore season with the Fighting Hawks, he is making a big impact on offense. While wearing the alternate captain’s ‘A’ on his sweater, he has 19 points through 15 games (six goals, 13 assists). This is already an improvement on his totals from last season where he totaled 15 points in 22 games (two goals, 13 assists). At 19 years old, he is just as likely to lead the rush as he is to launch it with a great stretch pass. When the opposing team has a rush of their own, he is there to break it up or prevent a high-quality scoring chance.
It’s his ability to be a play-driver in the offensive zone while also doing all the right things in the defensive zone that has Sanderson on track to join the Senators before the end of the NHL season.
“In an ideal world, my goal is to definitely be there at the end of the year and get a couple of games,” says Sanderson. “But that’s if everything goes as planned.” (From “Senators’ Jake Sanderson will make his NHL debut this spring. A tiny town in Montana will be cheering him on”, The Athletic, 11/25/21) With his father being a veteran of over 1,100 games in the NHL, he is a thoroughbred on the back end, more than likely playing at a level that many of the players in this tournament will never reach. There is no rule in hockey that a team’s best player must be its captain, but this is a situation where that very well might be the case.
Sanderson Knows What it Takes
Growing up with a father in the NHL has its advantages, so long as the dream is to also play in best hockey league in the world. In the case of Sanderson, his father finished his career with 700 regular season points while playing for seven different franchises (eight if you count the Hartford Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes separately). It takes a special kind of player to not only last 17 years in the NHL, but to also stay productive for as long as Geoff did. As Jake grew up and developed a passion for hockey, his dad was there to teach him that doing “enough” isn’t enough.
“I get here pretty early. About six o’clock in the morning,” said North Dakota coach Brad Berry. “And a lot of days, Jake Sanderson beats me to the rink.”
But while Geoff made his living as a winger in the NHL, his son gravitated to the defensive side of whatever sport he was playing.
“In soccer, he wanted to be the goalie because of the big gloves. And hockey, he got goalie equipment one year for his birthday or Christmas. And it was probably not the smartest thing I ever did,” Geoff joked. And while Geoff moved Jake away from goaltending over time, that mindset never really left the young boy. “He definitely loves blocking shots and being on the defensive side,” added Geoff.
But just because your dad played in the NHL does not guarantee success for yourself. History is filled with sons who failed to escape the shadows of their fathers. While it will always be a little hard to compare Geoff and Jake’s careers due to one being a forward and one being a defenseman, you can bet that the younger Sanderson is out to be known as so much more than just “Geoff’s kid”.
After playing such a pivotal role in leading the Americans to a gold medal last year, Sanderson can really begin to etch his name into USA Hockey lore by leading them to a back-to-back championship, this time as captain.
Sanderson Will Lead the Way for Team USA
Team USA’s roster at this year’s tournament boasts a balanced slate of skill, grit and character, meaning that Sanderson will not be on the hook to lug this team forward all by himself. With players like Matty Beniers and Luke Hughes on his side, he will have teammates that can carry the mail all on their own and even shine brighter than he will at times. Considering the style that Sanderson plays, if he’s the one that’s shining brightest for the Americans, that more than likely means that Team USA doesn’t have the puck as much as they would like to. While he can create plays all on his own, his objective will be to get the puck to his teammates that excel in the offensive zone and let them do what they do best while he patrols the blue line.
But don’t be surprised if he decides to turn on the jets and make something happen for himself every once in a while.
In the event that the Americans find themselves behind the 8-ball and staring down the barrel of defeat, you can expect Sanderson to be a calming presence for his teammates. It’s a little odd to refer to a 19-year-old as a veteran, but in this case it applies as the young defenseman has been on this stage before and knows that a victor isn’t crowned until the last second is off the clock. If the growth in his game this season at the collegiate level is any indication, he’s going to improve on his play in last year’s tournament and that should send shivers down the spines of his opponents, as he was downright smothering defensively last year.
Whether it’s on defense, offense or even just in the locker room, Sanderson is poised to make a huge difference for the Americans at this year’s WJC. He’s got an NHL skillset and he could be on the shortlist for the Hobey Baker Award this year as the best player in college hockey. But before he can win that award or sign his first NHL contract, he’s got something else he wants to accomplish:
Bring another gold medal to the United States of America.
|Team Canada||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team USA||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Austria||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Czechia||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Finland||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Germany||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Sweden||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Switzerland||Players to Watch||Roster|
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I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.