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A Look Back at Zach Sanford’s Breakout Year

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Zach Sanford has used poor fortune from the start of the year to motivate a breakout into the NHL.

St Louis Blues v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Zach Sanford has ingrained himself into the St. Louis Blues bottom six. For the first time in his young career, he’s become a mainstay in the NHL. This is obviously a dream come true for the 24-year-old winger, who struggled to find any sort of consistency to start his career.

This year, Sanford has also been a great example to Blues fans that players are human too.

Before This Year

Washington Capitals

Sanford forwent his last two seasons at Boston College, instead signing his entry-level contract with the Washington Capitals. His outlook wasn’t great coming into the league, with some reporters assuming he’d be a bottom-six career player. The start to his career was shaky, supporting this claim, only scoring three points in the 26 games he played with the Capitals.

Move to the Blues

In February of 2017, the Blues brought in the struggling winger as apart of the trade that sent Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington. He played 13 games with the Blues as the season winded down, scoring five points. This was already more than he had scored in Washington, making hopes in St. Louis fairly high for the young forward.

2017-18 Season

2017-18 was supposed to be the year that Sanford came into his own. He had a good start with the Blues and the thought was that he would only continue growing as the team gave him more ice time. Fans got even more excited after Sanford had a great 2017 training camp. This excitement was cut short when he dislocated his left shoulder prior to the start of the season, though. The injury held Sanford out of most of the 2017-18 season. He managed to play a mere 20 games, scoring seven points, in the AHL that year.

This injury was a huge blow to Sanford. He had worked extremely hard over the summer and was becoming a rising star with the Blues. Missing most of the 2017-18 season stunted his progress and his name slowly dissolved from fans minds. That made this past summer the most important of his young career. Not only was he fighting to simply make the NHL roster, but he was also fighting to recover from a very serious shoulder injury.

It was an uphill climb for Sanford. The cards were stacked against him at the beginning of the year, with fans favoring prospects like Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas over Sanford. To make the NHL, he needed to be one of the best players among the team’s young prospects. After a long summer, it looked like he could put up a strong fight, then disaster struck.

Preseason Heartbreak

Sanford played in his first game of training camp on September 18. After the game, he called his mom, Cindy. She recounts just how excited he was to finally be back in a Blues jersey after going through so many trials. That same night, around midnight, Sanford’s father suffered a heart attack. With Zach being on cloud-nine after returning to the ice, Cindy said she waited to inform him until the next morning. “We didn’t call Zach right away. I knew he was having a good moment, so we waited until the morning,” she told Jeremy Rutherford of the Athletic.

Sanford’s father’s condition only continued to degrade, though. The next day, Zach’s sister, Melanie, was able to contact him about their father’s deteriorating state. Mother Cindy remembers Zach being clearly torn up over whether he should return home to be with his family or continue working towards his dream of playing in the NHL. “[Zach] was pretty distraught, but didn’t know what to do,” Cindy remembers. “He was like, ‘Dad would want me to make this team … even if he passes away, I know he’d be so mad at me if I didn’t make the best of it.’ It’s a parents’ dream come true, right?

Zach planned to head home in the next couple of days but wanted to make sure he made the best of his time with the Blues until then. This included a Thursday practice. Zach said the practice was good for him, helping take his mind off of everything. Those fates quickly changed, though, when Zach called his mother following practice. Cindy informed her son that his father had passed away at the young age of 54. Zach didn’t make it back home in time to see his dad, although he headed home as soon as he heard the news.

Then head coach Mike Yeo recalls his heart dropping when he heard of Zach’s father’s passing. “We’re here to be coaches, but we’re dealing with human beings, and you care about all of your players. So to see one of them going through something like that, it’s gut-wrenching,” he told the Athletic. He says he told Zach to head home, saying, “you’re going to play in this league a long time, but you’ve got to take care of what you need to. Don’t get caught up in worrying about that right now.”

This Year

The passing of his father was expectedly hard on Sanford but he’s accomplished a family goal in light of it. After a dominant 2018-19 season, Sanford has taken a tremendous step towards becoming a mainstay in the NHL. While he still has to fight off competition from star prospects like Kyrou and Klim Kostin, he looked good in the ice time he got this year.

In 60 games this year, Sanford managed 20 points. He did this while averaging a mere 12:35 in ice time each game, the second lowest among Blues to play in a majority of the year. He also ranked 15 in scoring, the lowest of any consistent forwards on the team but above four defensemen.

Sanford has a very unique style of play. When it worked, it worked. He is a big body with a good shot and a good sense of the game. While, like many big men, his skating could be worked on; it’s not a major concern. He’s a well-rounded player and the Blues have clearly liked what they’ve seen.

Moving Forward

The Blues will keep Sanford as a bottom-six player during playoffs, potentially swapping out with players like Robby Fabbri or Samuel Blais. As next season comes around, though, Sanford could find himself as a permanent member of the team’s lineup. He has shown he has the productivity to warrant a few more appearances in the roster, without question.

There is a very real chance that Sanford follows in his fellow teammate, Oskar Sundqvist’s footsteps. Sundqvist was a bottom-line player in 2017-18 but has exploded into a dominant member of the Blues top-six this year. A mix of hard work and faith from the Blues coaching staff helped him find his own and score 31 points in 71 games this year.

Sanford could easily replicate this and make next year a true breakout season. He has flaunted a strong skill set and an even stronger work ethic. With, finally, a full year of NHL play under his belt, there’s no doubting that Sanford is finally on the rise.

He has made his family, and his father, proud by finally becoming a mainstay in the NHL. He is primed to go even farther, now, and make himself a standout name in the Blues lineup.