Most people didn’t expect Zach Sanford to make the Capitals roster out of training camp about one month ago, especially if they had not had the pleasure of seeing him play in development camp or the South Florida Rookie Tournament. I had Sanford ranked eighth among current Caps prospects before camp. Despite the long odds, Sanford had enough positive performances in the preseason to prove to the coaches that he not only deserved to make the roster, but he may also start the season on the Capitals’ revamped third line.
Sanford has certainly been impressive thus far in his career exclusively in preseason action. He is poised with the puck. He doesn’t look lost with the higher speed of his linemates as well as the competition, which is always a risk with young guys getting their first NHL action. He also skates well. He isn’t going to be a big blazing winger – a la Blake Wheeler – but he is not a plodder either.
After comparing him to Joel Ward, a player known for strong play along the boards, Trotz had this to say about Sanford’s game on the wing: “His puck poise in the small space along the wall, I thought it was exceptional for just moving him over there.”
It is in these small spaces, whether along the boards or in front of the net, where Sanford will need to produce, and he has the abilities to do so. It is no secret that Sanford has a big body — he’s officially listed at 6’3″, 185 pounds. Sometimes it is tough for guys of his stature to be effective with the puck on their stick, especially in small spaces due to the length of their stick — see the early career of Eric Fehr.
So far, Sanford has made small plays in tight spaces look easy, which will be very important for the Capitals, especially their third line. The Capitals now have at least one person on each scoring line that can excel in this area. On the first line TJ Oshie is incredible in tight spaces with the puck on his stick, and on the second line Justin Williams is not too far behind him, particularly along the wall. If Sanford can crash the net and work the walls effectively, it frees up Marcus Johansson and Lars Eller, who are not stellar in that regard, to play with more room for skill plays.
Let’s take a look at some plays from the Capitals preseason tilt with the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh that demonstrate Sanford’s tight space abilities.
The drop by Eller was a little bit behind Sanford. He was not only able to corral the pass but he simultaneously pushed the puck through Jeff Skinner to get a quality shot on net. Unfortunately for Sanford, the positioning of the defenseman and his tightness to the goalie stopped him from being able to do anything but go backhand or force a quick shot.
Sanford pulled off the tougher of the two options, but the Canes goalie was able to sniff it out. The play is not a complicated one, but Sanford has the skill and the confidence to pull it off.
His goal was a bit more complicated. Three separate areas of this play deserve praise. The rip off of Boston College teammate Noah Hanifin was impressive. The finish showed his quick hands around the net. But the best play came in the middle. As Sanford gathers the puck and starts to work toward the net, he drops the puck to his backhand below the goal line, feeling Hanifin’s back pressure almost before it comes.
Many players would barrel toward the net in this instance. They may get hooked or have their stick lifted before ever getting a shot off, or they might force a shot before getting into a scoring position. In Sanford’s case, he moves the puck away from the pressure for just enough time before quickly getting it into shooting position for the finish. Sanford’s ability to read the play quickly in this instance gave him the needed edge.
Sanford will probably not get to see much power play time in his first year with the Caps, so his points will have to come at even strength. If he’s able to keep up what he has shown in the preseason, he could have a successful season.
Headline photo: Amanda Bowen
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