June 3, 2023

Ottawa Senators rookie Jake Sanderson has already faced a trial by fire. Without quality defence, he has been thrust into the second-pair role. He’s been chewing up minutes and has performed remarkably well. Now with Thomas Chabot out for at least a week, Sanderson will get his first shot at the top pair. Coming off their losing skid, the Senators need to make up ground, and for that to happen, Sanderson will need to find the next gear.

Sanderson’s Increased Ice Time

According to Natural Stat Trick, of Sanderson’s 303:18 of ice time, less than half of that has been with the top two forward lines. Chabot has been the Senators’ number-one defenseman for a while now, so he’s owned the bulk of that time. But Chabot suffered a concussion against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday, so Sanderson should now get those minutes. While it’s highly unlikely that head coach DJ Smith will deploy him for nearly 30 minutes a game, he will still have ample opportunity to prove he can be number one.

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

Among the top two forward lines, most players see a reduction in their xGF% (expected goals for percentage) without Sanderson. Drake Batherson has been on a tear this season, and his even strength on-ice xGF% drops from 54.38% to 45.13% with Sanderson on the bench. He’s been fantastic defensively, but Sanderson’s ability to drive offensive play has been widely underrated so far. He’s spent more time on the penalty kill (37:28) than on the power play (33:02), which should change. Without Chabot to quarterback the first power-play unit, Sanderson should get even more time; I won’t be surprised if Sanderson’s first goal comes while Chabot is out.

Senators Need a Lifeline

It’s been a painfully disappointing season for the Senators so far. Following Josh Norris’ injury, they’ve suffered a deluge of bad situations, from Artem Zub’s injury to a bad losing streak, and now Chabot is out. Everyone expected Sanderson to play a big role in the team’s success this season, but now they need him to step up against the toughest competition. He’s rarely played more than 10 minutes a night against top-level opponents.

Related: Senators’ 3 Up, 3 Down: Flyers Win, Chabot’s Injury & More

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Sanderson’s ice time has steadily climbed as he gets more challenging assignments, but now he’ll have to shut down the top players in the league. Against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 14, Sanderson was on the ice for under five minutes against Auston Matthews, but sheltering him against elite players is no longer an option. Sanderson is in a sink-or-swim position for the next week or two.

While snapping the losing streak with a win against the Flyers was a good start, the Senators are still the only team in the Atlantic Division with under a .400 points percentage. If, as the old old metric suggests, playoff teams are decided by American Thanksgiving, Ottawa will have to rocket up five spots in the standings by Nov. 24.

Shane Pinto Ottawa Senators
Shane Pinto, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While Shane Pinto and the Seattle Kraken’s Matty Beniers continue to fight for the Calder Trophy, Sanderson has become the dark horse. He hasn’t made the same impact as last year’s winner, Mortiz Seider of the Detroit Red Wings, but he has been quietly good. He hasn’t been overly flashy, laying monster hits, but he’s been a steady and stable defenseman.

Now the pressure of being number one on a defensively below-average team looms large. For a team already struggling, Sanderson will have to be near perfect for the team to succeed. It’s unclear if he’ll routinely be alongside fellow newcomer Jacob Bernard-Docker, or if Smith will shuffle his pairings. If they do wind up together, it speaks volumes about the coaching staff trusting Sanderson.

It’s been a dismal start for the Sens. They’ve shown flashes of greatness, but they’re not clicking yet. If they have any hope at all in getting to the playoffs, the next two weeks are critical. With almost all of their games being decided by a single goal, their defence cannot slip up. There’s still work to do up front, but right now, the team needs someone to play hero on defense. Can Sanderson be that hero or will the slide in the standings continue?

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