Jake Sanderson is surging up draft boards.
National Hockey League Central Scouting had the United States National Development Team Program defenceman at No. 11 on their mid-season list of North American skaters before moving him up to No. 4 in the final rankings earlier this month.
TSN director of scouting Craig Button had Sanderson at No. 33 on his January prospects list before bumping him up to No. 12 in March.
"My whole game improved as the season went on, but probably the mental aspect the most," Sanderson explained. "My confidence grew, and our team got gradually better throughout the year and that helped my individual play. At the start of the year we played a lot college teams and that was difficult, and then when we went over to play kids that were our own age it was a little easier because they weren't as big or strong."
Sanderson, the son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson, made a big statement at January's All-American Game for top draft prospects, picking up two assists and being named MVP. The 6-foot-2, 182-pounder also didn't hesitate to throw his weight around, landing a couple big hits.
"I made some nice plays, but I can't take all the credit because I wouldn't be able to do it without my teammates. That was probably one of the most complete games our team has played all year, so that helped me," he said.
Sanderson is projected to be the top American selected in the NHL draft and the second defenceman behind only Erie's Jamie Drysdale.
Sanderson spoke to TSN via Zoom from his family home in Whitefish, Mont., and reflected on what it was like growing up in a state with a small hockey community. The 17-year-old also explained how his dad helped improve his skating and why the next World Juniors in Edmonton and Red Deer are a big goal for him.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
What would it mean to be the top American picked at the draft?
"That would be awesome. Watching the draft last year with Jack Hughes [going first overall] and seeing all those guys we knew last year was pretty cool. I think this is our year, so every guy on our team is excited."
TSN director of scouting Craig Button did a mock draft and had you going to Winnipeg. What do you make of the potential of playing in a Canadian market?
"That'd definitely be cool. Obviously, my dad played for Canadian teams (Vancouver and Edmonton) and I have family in Canada as well. It'd be cool to be drafted anywhere."
You served as captain at the under-17 and under-18 levels. What makes you a good leader?
"I'm somebody who leads by example and somebody who comes to the rink every day and brings it – whether it's in practice or in a workout. I'm someone who sets the tone for every single game."
During the All-American Game in January you levelled the USHL's rookie of the year, Brendan Brisson, with a big hit. How has the physical side of the game developed for you?
"It's definitely increased with going to the NTDP and working out a lot and gaining weight and strength and muscle mass. That helps me, because I’m a pretty physical player. I've definitely been working out a lot."
How much muscle mass have you gained?
"Throughout the season I think I've gained maybe five pounds. I can feel it and you can see a physical difference from the start to the finish of the year."
Your dad was an excellent skater in during his playing days, how has he helped you in that regard?
"When I'm working out with him here and skating with him here, we always work on skating for a long time, because that's probably the most important part of my game."
Do you have a favourite memory of being around NHL dressing rooms as a kid?
"I was really young when all that was going on and I definitely do remember going in some dressing rooms like in Edmonton and Phoenix, but it was pretty long ago."
What kind of hockey dad is your dad?
"He comes to a lot of our tournaments, a lot of our games, which is really nice. After games he gives me pointers and stuff, but he's not terribly hard on me. I think he knows how I would feel if he was yelling at me or something. He lets me do my own thing."
Your dad was a forward, how did you become a defenceman?
"I was a bit of a forward when I was younger, but I was drawn to the defence position. When I was younger, I was a really good backwards skater, so I think that was an advantage."
Which NHL player do you model your game after?
"I really like to watch [Dallas Stars defenceman] Miro Heiskanen, because he's a great skater and I try to skate like him. He also puts the puck in the net, and I try to do that as well."
What does an average day look like for you at the moment?
"Right now I'm in Whitefish and we're pretty lucky here. We're able to get outside a lot and go mountain biking and work out and even skate a little bit."
Montana doesn't have too many COVID-19 cases. What's it like right now?
"Yeah, it's definitely not hit hard. Obviously, the weather's pretty nice here now. I mean, there are still a lot of places closed down, so we're still social distancing and stuff as a precaution."
What's it like to still be on the ice? Not many players are able to do that right now.
"I'm really lucky, actually. Nobody else is probably skating so I'm not taking that for granted."
What was it like growing up in Whitefish?
"It was really cool. There's not a lot of hockey here. There was only one team for each age group, so you had to make the most of what you had, and you had to travel a lot for games, which was pretty cool."
You are on pace to become the first player born in Montana to play in the NHL. What would that mean to you?
"That'd be awesome. Like I said, there's not a lot of hockey out here in Montana, so being able to represent this state is an honour."
What's the toughest question you've been asked during interviews with NHL teams?
"A team asked me if I was more of a gym rat or a rink rat. It wasn't really a tough question, but something I've never been asked before, so I had to think for a second."
What did you say?
"I said I was probably more of a gym rat. Just love being in the gym."
What was the highlight of your season?
"Definitely winning the [under-18] Five Nations tournament in November in Sweden. Our team went through a lot of adversity in the time we were together, so it was nice to get a win together."
What was the adversity and how did you guys overcome it?
"Our 17s year [in 2018] we finished last at the World U-17 Hockey Challenge, but that was kind of a good thing for us, because we based our whole experience at the NTDP on coming last and having that chip on our shoulder that entire time."
Why is the University of North Dakota the right spot for you next season?
"I'm really excited. It has all the tools for me to go to the next level, especially with the facilities and stuff. It's pretty close to home too, which is nice."
What's the most impressive thing about Ralph Engelstad Arena?
"They got a new jumbotron, which is pretty crazy."
How much is the next World Juniors on your radar?
"It's in Edmonton and Red Deer so I have a lot of family up there – my dad's parents and mom's parents and a lot of cousins – so it’d be really cool if I was able to make that team."
The under-18 World Championship slated for Michigan in April was cancelled, how much does that drive you to get back to the international scene?
"It was heartbreaking to have that tournament cancelled, because it's kind of like our big thing during the two years we're together at the NTDP. It motivated me a bit more to have the opportunity one more time, not just to play with the USA jersey on, but to have the chance to play with those guys again."