Ever since the University of North Dakota was bounced from the NCAA tournament by the University of Minnesota Duluth in the longest tournament game in history, the real buzz in Sens land has become, will Jake Sanderson opt for another year of NCAA hockey or sign a contract and begin his professional career?
There is no shortage of opinions out there so let’s take an objective look at the decision from both Sanderson’s perspective and that of the Ottawa Senators. It’s important to get both perspectives as these are not necessarily two entities with aligned interests.
So who holds the cards here, so to speak? Yes, the Senators own his NHL rights and he can’t simply go wherever he chooses. However, until Sanderson puts pen to paper and exits school, since he is the superstar in the equation, he holds the cards. If he were not a superstar in the making, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Sanderson would simply stay in school for another season or perhaps even a 3rd. Perhaps superstar is overstating things a bit. However, by all accounts, as an 18 year old, Jake Sanderson was the best player in that 5 overtime game against men as many as 4 years older than him and has steadily improved since the start of the season.
So let’s start with an examination of this decision from his perspective. What are the factors that he would consider in making his decision?
Am I ready to make the jump? He would rely on his family and agent for this decision I would think. His father had a lengthy NHL career and knows a thing or two about the league and what it would take to play in it. The general given is that if he signs this year that he will be allowed to play a game and burn a year off his entry level deal. He would not come out, however, to play a game to burn his year and then play in the AHL. If there is any doubt about him being NHL ready, his decision becomes quite easy.
How much money will I sign for? The league minimum salary is $700,000.00 USD but a rookie on an entry level contract can make no more than $925,000.00 USD. If Sanderson’s agent believes he can get the Senators to give the maximum then would that affect his decision? Imagine telling an 18 year old to pass on making $800,000.00 in a year with a nice signing bonus to play another year of University Hockey because you think he might be able to get $925,000.00 a year later. A bird in the hand does sometimes beat two in the bush.
Is Ottawa the best place for me to play? This may not be as open and shut as one might think. Clearly Ottawa is a team building for the future and they have many assets of value to get them there. However, one of the biggest assets they have is current defenseman and assistant captain, Thomas Chabot. He is clearly their alpha dog on defense and is signed through the 2027-28 season. He also plays the left side and anchors between 25 & 30 minutes per game including the large majority of power play time. His game and Sanderson’s bear a striking resemblance. Both also play the left side. In a perfect world, one plays the left side and the other the right and you have a dominant 1 & 2 pair that can play all situations.
However, with both being left handed shots, it’s easy to see how there might be a log jam in a few years when Sanderson comes of age and comes out of his Entry Level Contract. When Sanderson emerges from his entry level contract, if he is deemed to be as good as Chabot, will the team be willing to sink 8 years at comparable or better money? Also, another year in North Dakota allows Sanderson to assess his future employer and see what direction they take. Will DJ Smith still be the coach? Will Pierre Dorion still be the GM? Will Eugene Melnyk still be the owner? These are all likely to be yes but there are no guarantees.
What if I get injured playing a 2nd season at North Dakota? This is the only real risk to Sanderson not playing professional hockey next year. If he suffers an injury and it sets back his development, it could delay him another year or worse, he may not get the contract he was hoping for by staying and dominating another year. Granted, most injuries can be recovered from and talent restored but without a contract, you get no money while you recover. At least if he were injured while playing for the Senators, he would be paid to do the rehabilitation and the rehab he would get with the Senators would be top notch.
If I am Jake Sanderson, given that I have a University degree to fall back to, if the only reason or risk for me by not leaving North Dakota now is that I might get injured, I would elect to stay. Right now, he holds the cards and once he signs, the teams holds them for several years. If I were him, I would try to strengthen my negotiating position with a Hobey Baker nomination, another World Junior Hockey Gold Medal and another year of physical growth which would cement me a top 4 spot in the rotation when I come out. But hey….that’s me. 😊
Now let’s look at the decision from the Ottawa Senators perspective. What do they stand to gain or lose by bringing Sanderson out of the NCAA now versus encouraging him to stay another year?
I know when teams make decisions on sending players to the AHL or keeping them in the NHL or telling a player to stay in school for another year, the standard messaging is “we want to do what’s best for the player’s long-term development”. However, let’s live in the real world. Some of that is true and some of it is rhetoric. In professional sports, it’s all about control and right now, the Senators don’t have as much control as they might like with this particular player.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the Sens give Sanderson the max rookie deal and get him out of North Dakota and into the line up for the remainder of the season thus burning a year of his entry level contract. What do they stand to gain? Even if he is able to have an impact and improve the team, the Senators won’t be making the playoffs this season and nor will Belleville in all likelihood. The team has 20 games left in their season and Sanderson, if he signed today, would have a week of Covid-19 quarantine followed by a few practices to get him up to speed and then he might play 15 games at the NHL level and then whatever games Belleville has left. There is some development to be gained to be sure. If he played 25 professional games before the end of the season, it could be argued that this would put him on a path for greater success next year. That said, Sanderson will play more at North Dakota next season and will benefit from another World Junior experience where he will be the alpha dog and possibly even the captain. Is there better development than that?
The Senators would gain control of their asset and that is their key piece in the puzzle and Sanderson and his team would know that too. If the Sens let Sanderson go back and play another season and he does the assessment of his employer that I mentioned earlier, what is to stop him from staying for a 3rd season?
Consider the case of Adam Fox of the New York Rangers for instance. Fox was drafted in 2016 by the Calgary Flames and was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes as part of the Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin acquisition. He was then traded to the New York Rangers when it became apparent that Fox was not going to sign with Carolina after his junior year in Harvard. The risk became that Fox would take advantage of a clause that allows an NCAA player to become a free agent after his 4 year NCAA eligibility expires if he has not signed with the team that drafted him. This isn’t a complete parallel as Fox was drafted in the 3rd round 66th overall whereas Sanderson was the 5th overall pick in his draft year. Calgary wasn’t trying to woo Fox out of Harvard a year after drafting him. However, other players have taken advantage of this loophole. If Sanderson doesn’t like the lay of the land, this is a chip he can play.
The risk of bringing Sanderson out of the NCAA is that he, along with 3rd overall draft pick Tim Stutzle and North Dakota teammates of Sanderson’s, Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Dokker, who are also expected to sign entry level contracts with the Sens and burn a year of their entry level deal is that they could all be coming out of entry level at the same time. Cap management is a very real skill and 4 prized assets being up for new contracts at the same time could be a headache that Pierre Dorion doesn’t want to deal with. The likelihood of Sanderson following the 4 year path and forcing the Sens hand to trade him lest he walk seems unlikely. Pierre Dorion would need to weigh the possibility of one versus the other in terms of the offer he would make now. Sanderson is also American, as is Adam Fox. Perhaps he would prefer to play in an American city or major media market.
Pierre Dorion, more than the Ottawa Senators, needs to think of his long-term job prospects. If you have an asset that is believed to be NHL ready and you don’t sign him either because the offer wasn’t good enough or that he recommended that Sanderson stay and play another year in the NCAA would require explaining this to ownership who are looking at another year of no playoffs. The Senators had an awful pro scouting off season this past year with only Artem Zub to be considered a real value add to the roster. If Sanderson isn’t in the line-up next fall, it will be incumbent upon Dorion to fill the holes on defense with someone capable and Josh Brown (still under contract), Brayden Coburn and to some extent, Erik Gudbransson, have not filled the part.
If I am the Ottawa Senators, I want this kid signed NOW. If development was the only concern, let him stay and dominate in his peer group. However, this kid has all the ear marks of a topflight player and developing alongside Thomas Chabot will do nothing to diminish that. There might be some growing pains but they might be felt the remainder of this year when our fate is known. Next year, this team needs to be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Coming out of entry level and having to sign 4 prospects is, in most cases, a good problem to have and if it is your problem, it means you are still the GM. A bird in the hand beats two in the bush for managers as well.
I said earlier in the article that Jake Sanderson and the Ottawa Senators are not necessarily two entities with aligned interests. The rumour is that Sanderson is staying put. I wouldn’t blame him if he did. Nothing less than the max rookie deal would get me to come out after a year. The Senators need to show some promise to the fans and ownership that they are trending towards the promised land and delaying this kid’s career doesn’t help with that. Is it a disaster for the Sens to let him play another season in the NCAA? Of course not, but it’s another year of not controlling your asset.
I am as curious as all of you are...
By Paddy Mack | Sens Nation Hockey