Among the 30 players who gathered for the Capitals’ development camp earlier this month, no one stood out more than 21-year-old left wing Zach Sanford, and his strong showing could earn him his first pro contract.
At 6-foot-4, 191 pounds, Sanford towered over many of his rookie teammates and excelled in every facet of the camp, from the skills competitions to the final-day scrimmage at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
Even though Sanford told me during camp that he was looking forward to his junior season at Boston College, two reports (here) and (here) indicate the Capitals think the Salem, Mass., native might be better served competing for a spot in the NHL in September.
“He’s certainly got an NHL body,” Capitals director of player development Steve Richmond said. “He looks like he could be ready. We’ll see.”
Taken by the Capitals in the second round (61st overall) in the 2013 NHL draft, Sanford has grown an inch and added six pounds in the past three years. Last season he recorded 13 goals and 26 assists for 39 points in 41 games with the Eagles, leading them to the Hockey East regular season title and a spot in the Frozen Four.
“This year was personally really good,” Sanford said. “I set a couple personal goals that I reached, but I think for the team, more importantly, we made it to the Frozen Four, which is huge and always one of our goals. To be a leader and play an important role on that team was definitely really cool for me.”
Sanford said he is a lot bigger and more mature than when the Capitals drafted him, but when asked if he expects to compete for a roster spot with the Capitals in September, he hesitated.
“I really haven’t thought about that much,” he said. “I’m looking forward to going back (to BC) next year and being an upper classman and leading there and take it day by day and see what happens. Just keep getting better.”
It is no coincidence that the Capitals may have an opening at third-line left wing, where newly signed Brett Connolly and rookie prospect Jakub Vrana are expected to compete for ice time. But as Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said, Sanford is two years older than when Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky made the Caps’ roster as 19-year-olds.
“It’s a veteran team, but it’s up to them to come in and turn some heads of the coaching staff and make decisions hard for them,” Mahoney said. “Tom Wilson did it. Andre Burakovsky did it. That’s all part of it.”
During the NHL’s draft combine in 2013, Sanford had the third-lowest body fat content among the 100 prospects at 7.4 percent. At the time he drew comparisons to James van Riemsdyk, a tall, lanky forward taken by Philadelphia with the second overall pick in 2007.
Since then, Sanford had gotten progressively stronger and has developed into an offensive force around the net and along the boards. After being drafted by the Caps, Sanford put up 17 goals and 18 assists in 52 games for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL, then netted seven goals and 17 assists in 38 games as a freshman at Boston College.
After a breakout sophomore season, the Capitals may be thinking Sanford is ready to play pro hockey next season, if not in Washington then with the Hershey Bears. The Caps have 43 players under contract for next season, well below the 50-man limit. Earlier this month Sanford said he’s starting to feel like a part of the Capitals’ extended family.
“A week every summer definitely helps makes you feel more at home here,” he said. “I think coming back and seeing all of the same faces is really good for all of us.”