Zach Sanford's first 20 NHL games were fairly unremarkable. The rookie forward did well to earn a spot in the lineup, but as time went on and the points were not coming, it was clear Sanford needed time in the AHL. Now he's back and he's making the most of his opportunity.
With Andre Burakovsky out of the lineup with a hand injury, that left an opportunity for a young prospect to earn some NHL playing time. Jakub Vrana, the Caps' 2014 first-round draft pick, seemed the obvious choice as his scoring acumen and similar playing style seemed well suited for the third line. Sanford, however, was already with the Caps when Burakovsky suffered the injury. The recall was more of a reward for good play in Hershey and Sanford was not expected to get into the lineup, but with only one game left before the bye week, he got the first crack at the third line.
Three games later, Sanford still has not relinquished that position.
"I think this past weekend was couple [sic] of my better games of the year I've played with the Caps," Sanford said.
Sanford scored his first NHL goal, the game-winner against the Anaheim Ducks, in Washington's last game before the bye. He was then sent back down to the AHL for the week. When the team returned to action, both Sanford and Vrana were recalled and it looked as if both players would compete for Burakovsky's spot on the third line. Sanford, however, won the competition before it could ever really start.
Sanford played in the Caps' fist game back on Saturday in Detroit and scored again. In his first 20 games in the NHL, Sanford had only one point to show for it, an assist. In his last three games, he has two goals. As a reslut, Vrana was reassigned to Hershey without getting into the lineup and Sanford now appears entrenched as Burakovsky's replacement.
The most encouraging sign for the Caps is not just that Sanford is playing well, it's that his addition to the third line has been relatively seamless. The combination of Burakovsky with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly had established itself as a dynamic line for Washington before the injury. The fact that it has not taken a step back with Burakovsky's absence speaks to just how well Sanford has played.
"It's a good opportunity for me with Burky coming out to step in and take advantage of it," Sanford said. "It's been easy to jump in on that line in his spot. They've been playing great, they just haven't slowed down. They've kind of helped me take advantage of that and put a couple in with some nice plays. That's been great for me."
Sanford's play of late reflects a remarkable level of development from the timid player we saw at the start of the season. Sanford looked overly cautious at times in his first tour with the Caps, leading to almost no production. With nothing to show for his efforts, Sanford's confidence began to drop which led to even more timid play. Sanford credits his time in the AHL for giving him the confidence he needed to succeed at the NHL level.
"A lot of that is from Hershey," he said. "Just being down there and getting the ice time and the touches and getting some points and making plays is huge for my confidence. It definitely shows when I got back up here, I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident with the puck."
That's exactly the attitude head coach Barry Trotz wanted to see from Sanford.
"As I said to him, just go for it," Trotz said after practice on Tuesday. "You've got an opportunity, just go for it and you know what a good decision is and a bad decision. He's got really good hockey sense. He's a very grounded young man. He understands the big picture, he understands the smaller stuff. I think he just was playing a little safe and now he's just playing."
While there's never a good time for a team to suffer an injury, Burakovsky's injury did allow the Caps to get a better idea of just how much Sanford could contribute to the lineup down the stretch. With the trade deadline just a week away, general manager Brian MacLellan has to decide whether or not to bolster the team's lineup for what the Caps hope will be a lengthy playoff run. The longer the playoffs go, the more likely it is that the team may need to call upon its depth.
MacLellan has stated the plan for the team was to carry Sanford and Vrana as the 13th and 14th forwards. While three games is a relatively small sample size, that's a plan MacLellan may feel more comfortable with now given how Sanford has thrived on the third line.
Said Trotz, "[Sanford] looks like he is going to take this opportunity and not be passive about it, not be safe." And that's exactly what the team was hoping for.
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