Senators extension with Sanderson is the latest in a series of clever bets

The Ottawa Senators made a massive investment in Jake Sanderson after just one NHL season, but it's a gamble they're unlikely to regret.

The Ottawa Senators have rarely been described as a model franchise in recent seasons, but the way they're aggressively locking down their core is a blueprint for other NHL teams to follow.

Ottawa isn't the first squad to throw max-term extensions at its promising young players, but Jake Sanderson's extension is a clear statement about the Senators willingness to aggressively lock up important pieces, demonstrating confidence that they'll produce, instead of waiting for a breakout to commit.

Waiting for youngsters to become stars before paying them is an expensive way to do business, and the Senators are prudently believing in their talent and internal evaluations. That requires a leap of faith, but the payoff could be enormous.

On the surface it seems odd to make Sanderson the 14th-most expensive defenseman in the NHL in 2024-25 when he's played just 77 games in the NHL. His first year at the game's highest level didn't result in massive numbers, either.

Despite the relative lack of offensive fireworks, what Sanderson did on the defensive end gave the Senators confidence he'll be a top-flight blueliner for years to come.

In his rookie season, he held his own from a possession standpoint (50.62 xGF% at 5v5) despite often getting buried in his own zone (54.3% defensive-zone start rate at 5v5) all while leading the team in penalty-killing minutes per game (3:17).

While his goal total was modest, Sanderson has never been much of a scorer at any level. He could easily improve on his shooting percentage from last season (3.0%), but his offensive game is likely to grow around his playmaking skills.

It's impossible to predict Sanderson's future output with 100% confidence, but any player who performed at his level in a sizeable role (21:55/game) as a 20-year-old is a pretty safe bet to become a foundational player.

Ottawa could've waited to see more from Sanderson, but it seems likely that would've only increased his price tag. While his $8.05 million salary isn't cheap, there's a good chance it looks that way in future seasons.

Jake Sanderson should become more and more valuable to the Senators in the years to come. (André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jake Sanderson should become more and more valuable to the Senators in the years to come. (André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

In 2024-25, the former University of North Dakota product's contract will eat up 9.2% of the projected cap of $87.5 million. For a little perspective, that would be equivalent to $7.68 million in the upcoming season. That's in the Dmitry Orlov, Jared Spurgeon, Morgan Rielly ballpark. It's possible that nets out as being a bit rich for Sanderson in his age-22 season, but it could easily seem cheap, too.

Where this contract has potential to get special is how it might look as the cap continues to rise. Many deals signed with that logic in mind didn't age well when COVID-19 flattened the salary cap, but presuming another similar event is avoided in the years to come, Sanderson's deal could become all the more valuable.

In order to give some perspective on how it might look, we're going to use the average of the projected increases between 2023-24 and 2024-25 (4.79%) and 2024-25 and 2025-26 (5.14%) and say the cap grows by that amount (4.97%) each year during Sanderson's deal.

While that will give us an imprecise projection, it should keep us in the ballpark and provide an idea how the defenseman's deal could work.

Via CapFriendly
Via CapFriendly

Ottawa needs Sanderson to develop into a steady top-four defenseman for this deal to become a win, but if he's any better than that, this contract will become a steal over time. Because the American blueliner is so young, age-related decline won't be a concern, either. Sanderson will be just 29 when the final year of this contract begins.

The Senators have already signed deals like this with their top two forwards — Tim Stützle and Brady Tkachuk — and each looks like it will provide excellent value to the team. When Ottawa extended Stützle, he was coming off an excellent sophomore season but hadn't proven himself as a top center at the NHL level. He then immediately broke out with a 90-point season.

Similarly, the team committed to Tkachuk at a time when he hadn't topped 45 points in an NHL season yet. After signing the deal, he produced back-to-back 30-goal campaigns. Together the duo's pre and post-extension basic offensive numbers look like this:

Via Hockey-Reference
Via Hockey-Reference

It wasn't difficult to predict that two talents like Stützle and Tkachuk would improve as they got deeper into their twenties, but the payoff for the Senators was instantaneous. Having both under contract through at least 2027-28 at $16.56 million will be a massive asset to Ottawa's team-building efforts.

Trying to lock promising young players early is not guaranteed to work as the Senators have seen with Thomas Chabot, who hasn't taken off as the team expected since earning an eight-year contract — and a few Norris Trophy votes — after a strong 2018-19 season.

The jury is also out on the team's eight-year deal with Josh Norris, who missed 74 games due to injury last season as his extension took effect.

Ottawa knows as well as any team that there's no foolproof team-building principle, but when you have special young players in your organization, getting them signed to lengthy extensions is usually the right move.

Those players might have light NHL track records — like Sanderson does — but they are often better bets than free agents past their prime, or even internal players with resumes long enough to command top-of-the-market salaries.