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Zach Sanford is making the most of his opportunity on the third line

Zach Sanford is making the most of his opportunity on the third line

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.

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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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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan began tackling the items on his very long to-do list with the signing of prospect forward Shane Gersich. The team announced Monday that Gersich was re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract that carries a cap hit of $700,000.

Gersich will remain a restricted free agent at the end of the deal but will still be one year away from becoming arbitration eligible.

Gersich, who will turn 23 in July, just finished his first full professional season with the Hershey Bears, recording eight goals and 16 assists in 66 games.

“I learned a ton,” Gersich told NBC Sports Washington about his first AHL season. “I think our staff here is unbelievable. They've taught me so much, whether it's [showing] me video or doing skills or whatever. Can't say enough good things about them. And just my overall game, playing 200 feet and being aware of little details in the game. I think my game's grown a ton.”

Gersich’s original contract was for two seasons, but the first year was burned at the end of the 2017-18 season when he signed out of college at the end of the season and joined the Caps’ roster.

That transition from Stanley Cup champion to AHL the following season was a tough one for Gersich initially.

“Obviously, you were making your NHL debut and stuff like that, then it's kind of back to work and square one,” Gersich said. “For me, I know [I'm] definitely not the kid that's going to shy away from working or anything like that. So obviously, you've got to earn everything you get, and then that's how it is at every level.”

The speedy forward played in five games for Washington, three in the regular season and two in the playoffs during the Stanley Cup run. His speed was evident and has led many fans to wonder if the future is now for the young forward. His first year in Hershey showed, however, he still has a lot to learn before he reaches the NHL.

Gersich is still very much learning the game at the professional level. There was a little too much reaction in his game as opposed to action, which mitigated his speed. That is something he knows he needs to refine.

“I think just always being aware out there,” he said when talking about aspects of his game he wants to improve on. “Keeping my head on a swivel and making little plays. Just using my strengths too, I think. I've got to realize that I can use my speed out there a lot.”

The Caps will have a few roster spots open next season and not much money under the cap to fill those spots. Using young prospects is always an intriguing option. Gersich’s new contract, however, seems to indicate the Caps anticipate him spending the season in the AHL.

Gersich’s new contract carries an NHL salary of $700,000, which is actually lower than his first contract with a $925,000 salary. His minor-league salary, however, went up from $70,000 to $115,000. It may look like Gerisch is getting a pay cut based on the NHL numbers, but he actually is getting a raise because, barring a dazzling training camp, he will be spending most if not all of next season in Hershey. And if he does surprise, well now he has a lower NHL cap hit which is very important for a Washington team that will likely be very close to the salary cap.

While the implications of the contract seem clear, Gersich is excited for the opportunity to show he belongs in the NHL at training camp in the fall.

“Obviously, I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “It's been my goal my whole life, and that's the reason I left North Dakota. I think I'm ready for it, but you've got to wait and see until the time comes.”

The Caps also announced Monday the re-signing of forward Brian Pinho to a one-year, two-way contract. His contract carries a $700,000 NHL salary and a $100,000 AHL salary.

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

The Capitals will have a lot of roster spots open and not much money to fill them with this offseason. Adding a young, cheap defensive prospect to the NHL roster will certainly help and that appears to be the plan for Jonas Siegenthaler.

Siegenthaler’s first NHL season began with him in the AHL, but it finished with him playing on the top defensive pairing of the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The season did not get off to a great start for Siegenthaler as he became a cap casualty despite a strong training camp. Heading into the start of the NHL season, he looked poised to make the Caps roster.

“I came to camp here with the mindset to make the team and come to camp in good shape and everything,” Siegenthaler said at the team’s breakdown day.

The suspension to Tom Wilson and subsequent acquisition of Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers forced Washington to shuffle money to get under the salary cap. Siegenthaler, who was waiver exempt, was sent to the Hershey Bears as a result.

Siegenthaler would have to wait until Nov. 9 to finally make his NHL debut. He would go on to play 26 games his rookie season.

“I think a guy like Siegenthaler came up and played really well,” Lars Eller said.

““I tried to play my best game,” Siegenthaler said. “Of course it wasn’t always easy but I think like I did my best and tried to help the team.”

With a deep blue line, Siegenthaler was sent back to Hershey in February, but was recalled late in the season after Michal Kempny suffered a season-ending injury. The call-up, however, was just to have an extra body. As Todd Reirden experimented with the defensive pairs heading into the playoffs, it did not appear he viewed the rookie defenseman as a real option for the playoffs. Despite all the shuffling, Siegenthaler did not get into the lineup until the season finale after Washington had already wrapped up the division crown.

The Caps struggled in the first round against the Carolina Hurricanes, however, prompting changes to the lineup. The defense still struggled with the constant in-game adjustments and a change was clearly needed. Siegenthaler got into the lineup for Game 4. By Game 5, he was playing in Kempny’s spot on the top pair alongside John Carlson.

“He really just seemed very poised,” Eller said. “There wasn't any panic in his game. It's hard to be thrown into a series like that where the stakes are high and I thought he did that really well.”

Still just 22 years old and with a contract that remains waiver exempt for another year, Siegenthaler could enter the 2019-20 season in a position to again have to compete just to make the NHL roster. The possible retirement of Brooks Orpik and speculation over whether Matt Niskanen could be traded, however, leaves the team with spots open on the blue line.

The fact that Siegenthaler was able to go from the AHL to the top pair of the Caps during the playoffs reflects his growth as a player over the course of the year. To expect him to come into next season in a top-pair role would be unfair. Even a top-four role seems unlikely with Kempny likely returning and Nick Jensen taking Niskanen’s spot if he does in fact get traded.

But if the coaches trusted Siegenthaler as a rookie when it mattered most and with him still on an entry-level deal at a time when the team will need to pinch every penny, Siegenthaler will almost certainly be in Washington and not in Hershey for the 2019-20 campaign.

“Next season’s going to be huge,” he said. “I’ll do my best in the summer to keep myself in shape, in even better shape. My goal is to be here a long time and for rest of my career and yeah, just got to work for it.”

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