Loading scores...
Prospects Report

Prospects Report: Sanderson a top-20 prospect

by McKeen's Hockey
Updated On: January 29, 2020, 1:18 pm ET

In last week's column we wrote about our 2020 NHL Draft mid-season ranking. You can see the ranking and read an unlocked column from Editor in Chief, Ryan Wagman, HERE. In the article he outlines the trends we see to date in the 2020 class as we work our way toward Montreal in late June. Using our ranking, compiled with input from our team of analysts/scouts around the world, he produced an interesting and entertaining mock draft for NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk (found HERE).

Back home at McKeen's, Brock Otten also took a turn at crystal ball gazing with a mock on our site (also unlocked). They both used different methodology to select the order; Ryan used the current standings with no regard for the lottery, and Brock used a random generator to produce the order. LA ends up with Lafreniere in one alternate reality and Detroit bags him in another. The result makes for some fun reading when compared; but think it will also help bring the draft a little further into focus for you from two very knowledgeable prospect watchers.

Speaking of Ryan, he has returned from an extensive scouting trip to Ontario, Canada to catch a number of OHL games, including The Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game played in Hamilton (we covered notable performances in last week’s Rotoworld column. Michael Rand (with some player notes from Brock and further refinement from Ryan) wrote about the game in an article published yesterday for subscribers found here.

Editor's Note: Drafting is only half the battle. Dominate all season long with our Season Pass! Use our NEW Lineup Adviser, get our Weekly and Rest-of-Season rankings and projections, track all of your players and more on your way to a championship! Click here for more!  

Don’t forget, for everything NHL, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK on Twitter.

As Editor in Chief, Ryan provides direction to our team, and is an invaluable mentor to our younger analysts/scouts (actually, include all of us at McKeen’s in that category – always learning). He is also our correspondent and Head Scout in the US covering the USHL, so we decided to hand over the keys entirely to this week’s column to focus on the notable USHL and USNTDP 2020 NHL Draft eligible prospects who were on display at the recent BioSteel All-American Game. Among other notes, he goes into detail on Jake Sanderson, currently ranked number 10 on our mid-season board, and the second defenseman after Jamie Drysdale in our ranking. Subscribers can find an even more in depth and detailed scouting report/profile here on Sanderson: https://www.mckeenshockey.com/nhl-blog/ushl-jake-sanderson-d-usntdp-2020/. Enjoy.

The McKeen’s team are scouting and writing about prospects all season long and provide in-depth reports on our website: www.mckeenshockey.com.


By Ryan Wagman

With the re-branded All-American Hockey Game, a blend between the USHL Top Prospect Game and the preseason USA Hockey All-American Prospects games of old, about one week in the rearview mirror, the USHL is now, like the teams of the CHL, past the functional mid-way point. As such, it is as good a time as any to check in with the league, including the vaunted USNTDP program, to look at some players who are looking like high picks in this year’s NHL Draft, as well as taking a few minutes to look at some other players who impressed in the All-American Hockey Game, which took place on January 20, in the USNTDP’s home arena in Plymouth, Michigan.

Before delving too deeply into the game in question, we will spend some time on the player from the USNTDP program – and the USHL as a whole – whose stock has made the most positive movement thus far. I am talking about:



2019 Stats: US National U18 Team (36GP-4G-13A-17PTS), USNTDP Juniors (USHL) (13GP-2G-9A-11PTS)

Father Geoff was one of the fastest skaters in the league during his hey-day around the turn of the century. The only player in NHL history from Hay River, Northwest Territories, and one of the few from the Territories at all, moved to Montana during his NHL career, and Jake was born in the town of Whitefish. Soon enough, just as his father is the only NHLer from Hay River, Jake will be the only (or at least the first) NHLer from Whitefish.

That will not be the only similarity the two Sanderson’s share. For one, Jake looks remarkably similar to his father, if a little bit beefier. For another, more pertinent similarity as far as his hockey prospects are concerned, the younger Sanderson can fly. And it is that latter reason why I believe he has moved up draft lists rapidly since his draft year began. Based on my early viewings of him this year, I saw a blueliner who could skate well, showing a second gear on occasion, but most often playing at a more sedate pace. Now, it seems that each time he gained control of the puck in his own zone at the Top Prospects Game, he was off like a bullet, carrying the puck out, through the neutral zone, and into the offensive end before the opposition could react. More often than not, he wouldn’t stop at the offensive blueline either, but would rush the net, forcing opposing defenders to turn around and react, leading to errors and scoring chances.

As is common with USNTDP players – as well as with NHL progeny – he has advanced hockey IQ, making him a top option for both special teams’ units as well as other critical shifts. He reads the play exceptionally well for a 17-year old, is very patient with the puck on his stick and strong off the puck, angling off opposing forwards to minimize the threat they might otherwise entail. He has NHL size, and while he is not a natural crasher, he has been known to drop a cold shoulder on someone here and there, with enough force to put his man on the ice.

Back to the speed. Speaking to Sanderson after the game ended, he mentioned that skating has been his main development focus throughout the season, while also getting in enough time to grow his skills game and continue to progress strength-wise. On the ice, he also pointed out that he sought to be a leader for his team. Before the North Dakota commit began to show off dynamic puck rushing ability, he would have profiled as a good #3, or possibly an acceptable #2 to a believer. Now, with his new development trajectory, it looks like we can bump those projections up a notch each, to a good #2 and an acceptable #1. He has gone from a player who would not ignite the fan base of the team that drafts him, simply an organizational asset, albeit a valuable one, to one who should be cause for genuine excitement.



Speaking to scouts over the course of the season, the general consensus had been that there was only one player from the USNTDP program this year who was a lock to hear his name called in the first round. Unanimously, that name was Jake Sanderson. This would constitute a large drop from previous seasons, especially last season, when eight members of the program went in the first round, seven of whom went in the top half of the first round.

Considering the draft history of players from the program, many scouts will offer that there will likely be a second player from the program taken in the first round, but there is zero agreement on who that second player might be. I will touch on some of the names down below, but one player who strengthened his case for day one glory was high energy, highly skilled:

Ty Smilanic, C, USNTDP

2019 Stats: US National U18 Team (23GP-6G-11A-17PTS), USNTDP Juniors (USHL) (6GP-3G-5A-9PTS)

Some would call Smilanic injury prone. After all, he had a bout of mono at the start of the year and shortly after returning from that illness, he suffered a high ankle sprain. He missed around 10 games from that injury and was just getting back up to speed when he blocked a shot with the inside of his glove, resulting in a fractured ring finger. Three times in a draft year getting hurt (or sick), but each of the times the issue was different, affecting a different body part. Clearly unfortunate, but not exactly injury prone. None of the injuries suffered seems to be a chronic issue and he has always come back quickly, and strong. In fact, many thought the finger issue would keep him out of the game for upwards of six weeks, but he made his triumphant return at the All-American game, well ahead of schedule, and scored the second goal for the USNTDP side.

I mentioned above that Smilanic is a high energy player and that is a deliberate trait that he brings to the game, designed to let observers notice his speed, which he relayed to me after the game, both his speed a foot and his speed at reading the play and reacting accordingly.

The main drawback that could prevent Smilanic from being selected in the first round, health permitting, is a tendency to play with a lack of creativity. He can show great skill and skating ability playing the puck throughout the offensive zone, controlling the cycle and making his share of defenders look silly, but then he lacks that finishing touch to turn danger between center ice and the faceoff dots into a scoring chance down low. But in this game, he flashed that ability a few times, whether it was driving the net and forcing the netminder to sprawl for the save, or utilizing his linemates Dylan Peterson and Hunter Strand for some quick puck movement in deep, or finishing off a goalmouth scramble created by a Sanderson drive by depositing the puck in the net.

If he can show those sides of his game with greater regularity, a few more scouts will come around on Smilanic as a first-round target.

As for other USNTDP roster members who seem to have first round supporters among NHL scouts, the names Thomas Bordeleau, Brett Berard, and Tyler Kleven have come up. Bordeleau and Berard are smaller players, but very skilled. Bordeleau is most notable for his puck skills and a big time shot, while Berard is a gifted stick handler who reads defenses at an advanced level. Kleven is very different to the Killer B’s as a large defenseman who usually needs to be studied to be fully appreciated as his game usually rests on his own zone acumen. That said, he has a great break out pass and demonstrated a killer one-timer in the All-American game, ripping a slap shot from the point and into the net off a faceoff before the goalie knew which team won the draw. If he is transitioning from a stay-at-home defender into a two-way player, as he told me he is aiming to do, he will leap up draft boards.

Looking at the rest of the USHL, let’s first reflect on the fact that the USHL All-Star squad – American players only – lost the match by a 6-1 final score. The USNTDP controlled the run of play until they had a secure lead, allowing the USHL team to begin bending the shot counter back towards par. The shots in this case were not of the scoring chance variety, but largely ones taken from the perimeter and from the faceoffs and further away. That being said, there were still a few notable performances on the USHL side from the game and a few USHL players who have had promising first halves.

Mitch Miller, D, Tri-City

2019 Stats: Tri-City Storm, USHL (34GP-5G-17A-22PTS)

After a promising pre-draft year last season with Cedar Rapids, a lot was expected of Miller this year with a (usually) stronger team in Tri-City. Through the season’s early going, he held his own, but more in terms of showing that he can handle the game in his own end despite being small of stature. More recently, he has started to find himself on the scoresheet with regularity, often more than once per game. Set to join Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven at North Dakota next year, Miller showed a dynamic offensive game at the All-American game, complete with plus skating (speed, stop/starts, edge work) and an understanding that the best defense is a good offense. While they never actually played on the same team, last year’s Tri-City team had Zac Jones who played a similar game at his best. Miller is in that ballpark.

Alex Laferriere, RW, Des Moines

2019 Stats: Des Moines, USHL (32GP-13G-18A-31PTS)

Laferriere scored the USHL All-Star team’s only goal in the game, although the play was more a case of a lucky bounce than a skill maneuver. He got the puck near the boards below the hashmarks and threw the puck towards the net. A USNTDP defender slid and knocked the puck into his own net. That said, Laferriere is a player of note. He has always had a plus shot and good reads, but the knock on him was his skating, particularly his crow-hop at start up that was terribly inefficient and left him struggling to catch up. No more. He got loose for a few breakaway attempts and was clearly the USHL’s most dangerous presence in the first period. The improved skating clearly makes him a greater scouting priority.

Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, LW, Brendan Brisson, C, Sean Farrell, RW, Chicago Steel

2019 Stats: Fontaine (Chicago, USHL: 30GP-17G-23A-40PTS), Brisson (Chicago, USHL: 30GP-17G-19A-36PTS), Farrell (Chicago, USHL: 30GP-12G-30A-36PTS),

These three plays on a line in regular league play with the Steel and were lined up as the first line for the USHL All Stars. In league play, they have been near unstoppable, with a level of integrated skill that surpasses almost everything we tend to see in the league. On this night…not so much. Fontaine didn’t use his high end shot on a few occasions, instead looking to pass. Brisson, generally the play driver, couldn’t get his motor going. Farrell, formerly a USNTDP player, but still in the league due to a late birthday and not being ready for Harvard, had a few nice moments, shaking defenders in the offensive zone, or stickhandling through them in the neutral zone, but nothing ever came from any of it. I doubt the single rough game will impact any of those players’ – or teammates Sam Colangelo and Luke Reid, both of whom also appeared in the All-American game – draft stock. The timing may have been unfortunate, but the talent is there with the Steel players, and talent will always play.

McKeen's Hockey

McKeen’s Hockey has been writing about NHL hockey and covering prospects for 25 years. Our team of scouts and analysts are in rinks around the world providing insight into the NHL’s future at mckeenshockey.com.