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Jake Sanderson: Calder Pretender or Contender?

With the season drawing to a close and the Senators’ playoff fate decided, there's been some debate about whether Jake Sanderson deserves serious consideration for the Calder Trophy.


Here are my thoughts about his candidacy, competition, and common evaluation criteria.


In terms of whom the voters have to choose from, it would seem to me that the top five competitors for the title are:


1) Matty Beniers (C) Seattle Kraken

2) Stuart Skinner (G) Edmonton Oilers

3) Owen Power (D) Buffalo Sabres

4) Matias Maccelli (L) Arizona Coyotes

5) Jake Sanderson (D) Ottawa Senators


Ottawa Senators defenceman Jake Sanderson celebrates after scoring Vegas Golden Knights during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP Photo)

In terms of criteria for making the decision, I don’t know what the voters use as it all seems very subjective. However, in a utopic world, using the following criteria would allow for more consistent decision making. No one of the criteria would outweigh the others. Properly weighted, you should get the right candidate more often than not. That said, that is a bumper crop to choose from.



1) HARDEST POSITION


From my vantage point, the hardest position to break into the league and be effective is at goaltender. Stuart Skinner is the oldest player on that list at 24. This isn’t unusual as goaltenders don’t normally get to the show without doing multiple tours of duty in the AHL. Mads Sogaard is 22 and he is just showing signs of being a capable goalie in the NHL. His status as a starter is TBD.*


Maccelli is second oldest at 22. Sanderson is in the middle at 20 though he, Power and Beniers are all born in 2002. Sanderson went in the 2020 draft being born in July while Power and Beniers both went in 2021 being born in November.


Without considering performance, Skinner had the toughest road position wise. That said, he also plays for the highest scoring team in the league.


Second hardest position, from my seat, is defence. No positions are easy in the NHL, but top pair defenceman play every night and their average TOI is typically higher than forwards.


Power (23:46) and Sanderson (21:04) distance Beniers (17:09) and Maccelli (14:11) considerably.


Power (77) and Sanderson (76) have both missed very few games with that higher workload. Skinner has played 49 of the Oilers’ games to date and will likely hit 50.


Finally, center is a harder position to play than winger. That gives Beniers the edge over Maccelli.


Based on these criteria, I would rank this category as follows:


1) Skinner, 2) Power, 3) Sanderson, 4) Beniers & 5) Maccelli


*Mads Sogaard will remain eligible for the Calder Trophy next season based on having less than 25 games in his NHL career.


2) STRENGTH OF TEAM


This has to be a relevant consideration as teams who insulate their young players more tend to get better results out of them. I understand that more ice time will be available on weaker teams. However, take Shane Pinto as an example. With the injury to Josh Norris creating a hole at first line center, Tim Stutzle was up for the challenge with two previous years under his belt. Pinto, on the other hand, has been playing above his weight class for most of the season trying to pick up the slack. I think it is conceivable that he would have had more points and a better campaign had he been in the three hole where he started the season.


Of the five candidates, Skinner and Beniers will see the post season for certain while the rest will all be watching. Play in the playoffs doesn’t factor into the award as votes are due prior to the playoffs. However, clearly Skinner and Beniers are playing for better teams.


Skinner, as I mentioned before, has the highest scoring offence in the league keeping the puck away from him on a nightly basis. Of course, when they don’t have the puck, it has historically been a nightmare. While I don’t question Skinner’s abilities, there is no doubt in my mind that his team has as least as much to do with his success as he has.


Beniers is the leading rookie goal scorer on a team in its second year of existence. That would sound daunting for any rookie. However, that second year team has already reached 100 points. He sits fourth on his team in scoring and has played all but two games. He is in a winning situation and that has to factor into his scoring totals. That said, this kid is for real, and he has been a legitimate contributor to the Kraken season.


Despite Power’s workload, he has been flanked by Rasmus Dahlin who is having a Norris trophy podium caliber season and the Sabres, as a whole, have the fifth lowest man games lost based on cap hit in the league while the Senators have the eighth highest. Power is fantastic. He has also been insulated.


Maccelli has put up some impressive numbers playing in one of the most unusual organizations in professional sports. There has been opportunity for additional ice time and less pressure to perform. He has seized it and, despite having missed 18 games this season, he is third in team scoring. He missed being ineligible for the Calder trophy by two games last season, so he had some valuable experience coming in this year. Nonetheless, he has done well with very little in the way of insulation.


Unlike Power, Jake Sanderson has not had the insulation this year. Thomas Chabot has not had the year he had hoped and has missed a good chunk of time. Artem Zub missed a substantial portion of the season. At one point, both Chabot and Zub were out, and Sanderson kept the

Senators in the hunt. The Senators have a decent offence. However, they are also a vulnerable team at five on five and, despite what anyone says about what Travis Hamonic has meant to his development, I would contend that Hamonic is Goose and Sanderson is Maverick in that relationship.


With strength of team being something that would lower the score, I would rank this category as follows:


1) Maccelli, 2) Sanderson, 3) Power, 4) Beniers & 5) Skinner


3) AGE/PREVIOUS PRO EXPERIENCE


Most of the Calder Trophy winners are coming out of junior hockey or USA college and have little to no pro experience. Oddly enough, the Calder Trophy is the one that Connor McDavid won’t win as he had a broken collarbone and missed half the season.


However, occasionally players like Kirill Karpizov (2021) and Artemi Panarin (2016) come over with a few years of KHL experience to help them transition. Both were deserving winners of the award. However, it’s hard to argue that, had they started in the NHL at 20 instead of 23 that their debuts would have been less impressive.


Of the five candidates I have identified, only Jake Sanderson played his first NHL game this season.


Maccelli played 23 NHL games last season and a full season in the AHL the year before as well as having two years of Finnish League experience.


Skinner had 14 NHL starts and four ECHL/AHL seasons before this season.


Beniers played 10 games for the Kraken late last season and Power played the final eight games for the Sabres.


It may not sound like much as I don’t recall Sanderson struggling at any point this season. That said, his worst 10 games of the season were his first 10. Had he not been injured and managed to get some games late last season, it’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t have given him a jump start on this season.


With previous pro experience being something that would weigh against you in the rankings, I would rate this category as follows:


1) Sanderson, 2) Power, 3) Beniers, 4) Maccelli & 5) Skinner


4) NUMBERS


In the end, hockey is a stat driven sport like any other, and you need to look at statistical output. It’s hard to compare the stats of players playing different positions.


Perhaps that is why, since the Senators rejoined the NHL in 1992/93, there have only been five defencemen and four goalies to win this award. It’s hard to ignore big offensive numbers and easy to make the decision based on that criterion.


That said, it is very relevant and shouldn’t be ignored. In order to make the comparison more even handed, you need to look not just at goals and assists for skaters and wins and losses for goalies. Compare the rookies to their other peers in the league on multiple statistical factors.


Matty Beniers is the leading point getter amongst rookies and is second youngest of the five candidates. He is also a plus 16 and only 10 of his 57 points are on the power play which suggests he is strong at even strength. He not only leads rookies in points but also in goals at 24. Though a goal and an assist are worth the same amount in the statistical count, goal scorers are worth more than playmakers in the forwards category where I come from. He is also playing for a playoff team with 100 points.


Maccelli is the second leading rookie scorer in the league and is second oldest of the candidates. Despite playing for a lottery team in Arizona, he is a plus two and only 13 of his 48 points are on the power play. He plays the fewest minutes of the candidates and with 11 goals, he is 14th amongst rookies. He has missed 18 games which suggests he could be close to or in the lead for rookie scoring had he only missed two like Beniers.


Owen Power is the leading defenceman scorer among rookies and plays the most minutes of any of the candidates. He also logs the second most minutes on average on the Sabres’ roster. Though he has been insulated by a better and healthier roster, he is a plus 10 which is hard to ignore. He has played 77 games which is a testament to his durability.


It goes without saying that Stuart Skinner leads rookie goalies in all relevant categories. However, he is 18th in the league in starts (47), 10th in wins (28) and 14th in saves (1377). Of the 17 goalies who have started more games than him, only 8 have a higher save % (.914). He won’t win the Vezina, but that is a statistical profile of someone who deserves serious consideration for the Calder Trophy.


Sanderson trails only Power in rookie defenceman scoring and time on ice. His plus/minus is -6 which is lowest among the five candidates. He did all this while playing on a team that was decimated by defenseman injuries and man games lost and only missed five games which is a testament to his durability. Durability was something I was worried about coming into the season given how few games he had played in the previous two seasons in college and some of the injuries he sustained along the way.


Based on the aggregate comparison, I would rate the statistical profiles as follows:


1) Skinner, 2) Beniers, 3) Power, 4) Sanderson & 5) Maccelli


5) EXPECTATIONS


Clearly some prospects come into the league with more pressure on them to perform. It’s reasonable to compare their performance to what they were expected to do.


Matty Beniers went second to Owen Power in the 2021 draft and played 10 games at the end of last season where he recorded nine points. I picked him in my season draft, and I am sure he went in most fantasy hockey leagues. Leading the league in rookie scoring would be considered at least meeting his expectations. His team wasn’t expected to do what it has done, and he was a big part of that. However, this may have made it easier for Beniers to learn as he went.


Stuart Skinner wasn’t expected to emerge as the starter in Edmonton this year. I am sure the Oilers had expectations of him and he of himself. However, Jack Campbell was expected to carry the load and the pressure got to be too much for him with his new contract. This would have lessened the expectations of Skinner to a certain extent.


Owen Power came into the league as the number one pick in 2021. No one expected him to lead the rookie crop in scoring as a defenceman. He was expected to anchor the defence core in Buffalo, and he did just that while leading rookie defencemen in scoring. Safe to say that he met or exceeded all expectations this season.


Matias Maccelli played on a team that was expected to be awful. The team has exceeded expectations and I am sure he did as well. However, he did not come in with the pedigree of the other candidates and this would have lessened the burden to perform.


Jake Sanderson came in less heralded than Beniers and Power. However, he came in with the lofty hopes and dreams of a Sens Nation fan base dreaming of the prototypical top pair defenceman and knocked it out of the park. He made players around him better and easily exceeded expectations.


From a performance versus expectations standpoint, I would rank this category as follows:


1) Power, 2) Sanderson, 3) Beniers, 4) Skinner & 5) Maccelli


OVERALL RANKING


Here are the summary rankings for the five categories:



Weighing each category the same, the lowest average score would win. Here is my final ballot:


1) Owen Power

2) Jake Sanderson

3) Matty Beniers


In the end, do I think that Jake Sanderson will make the final ballot? I suspect not. Points scored tends to impress at Calder Trophy time and I suspect Skinner will get some love. This would be especially true if the Oilers win their division. The last two defencemen to win the Calder Trophy, Moritz Seider and Cale Makar, both registered 50 points. Makar did it in 57 games.


I suspect Beniers will win and it’s not wrong. Leading rookies in scoring and helping your team make the playoffs makes a strong case. If the Senators had qualified for the playoffs, given Sanderson’s contribution, I would say he would be a front runner for the award.


However, having Jake Sanderson on that final ballot would not be wrong either. When you look at the totality of contribution and the role he has assumed on this team, the rest of the league can keep their rookies.


Sens Nation will stick with Jake Sanderson, thank you very much.

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