Monday, September 16, 2019

Sanford hopes to build consistency into his game after strong Cup Final run

24-year-old played arguably best for Blues against Bruins to help St. Louis win 
Stanley Cup, searching to play at consistent level with veterans O'Reilly, Perron

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- Zach Sanford was supposed to be at a charity event taking part in something good when suddenly, boos reigned down at the Thayer Sports Center.

Yes, those boos were directed at him. It's a bit of a hard way to treat a native son, one who grew up a Boston Bruins fan and has plenty of family and friends that are Bruins fans.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Stanley Cup champion Zach Sanford hoists the trophy after the Blues won
their first-ever title on June 12 in seven games against the Boston Bruins.

But when Sanford is announced as 'No. 12 Zach Sanford, Stanley Cup champion,' well that still sticks in one's craw to Bostonians.

"That's a good reason to get booed for, I guess," Sanford said. "... They said Stanley Cup champion and everything. There were some Bruins guys playing too, so it was funny."

Sanford participated in the 2nd annual Hold the Line Hockey Game on Aug. 22 in Braintree, Ma., a south suburb of Boston. 

Those fans knew exactly who he Sanford was and what he represented. Just because the Salem, Ma. native is one of their own, he had something they didn't.

"They were just kidding, but it was fun," Sanford said Sunday after the third day of training camp. "All the family members who are Bruins fans were giving me crap, but it was all in fun. They were happy for me."

Perhaps those same relative were happy Sanford was able to get back into the Stanley Cup playoff run for the Blues. He had originally played the first three games of the first round series against the Winnipeg Jets before being healthy scratched. But when Oskar Sundqvist received a one-game suspension and Sanford was re-inserted into the lineup for Game 3 against the Bruins in the Cup Final, even though the Blues lost that game, Sanford made an impact and would finish with a goal in Game 7 to go with three assists in five games and help the Blues to their first Stanley Cup championship.

"Getting to watch some games, it was easy for me to figure out what made guys successful," Sanford said. "And for a guy like me, playing physical and playing hard, not giving up on plays or giving up on loose pucks and being able to cover those and stay on it. That all starts with my strength and my size. Heading into this year, that's a big focus for me personally. I feel confident and I plan on bringing that physicality and bringing that heavy game."

Sanford had his success playing with Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron, and that trio found an instant click. It helped justify coach Craig Berube's decision to go with Sanford, who had an assist, for Game 3. He would never come back out of the lineup.

"I thought that early on in the playoffs, he looked a little overwhelmed maybe," Berube said of Sanford. "Later on, I thought he was strong, competed hard, big-body guy. He's got really good hands, can make plays, scored a couple goals. He's a smart player, good defensively."

Sanford, who entered the summer as a restricted free agent, got a nice bump in pay when he signed a two-year, $3 million contract on July 8 ($1.5 million average annual value), almost doubling his pay from $875,000 on his three-year, entry-level contract.

And Berube has given Sanford, 24, the chance again of playing with Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron.

"I found my game a little bit there at the end of last year," Sanford said. "For me, it's just coming into this year and continuing to build off of that and continuing to grow. Getting to play with O'Ry and Perron, it's really good for me in these practices asking them questions, where they think I should be, where they're looking at and what they see. For me, it's just continuing to learn and continuing to grow this year."

Sanford's greatest challenge in his young career has been maintaining a consistent level of play. If he can build off his games during the Cup Final, his potential is untapped.

"He can absolutely be consistent with it," O'Reilly said. "I think part of that as a line is being consistent as well and being predictable with each other, having that dialogue and that communication, whether it's on the bench or in practice and little areas and little things and little adjustments that need to be made. It starts with being consistent with our work ethic and having that open communication. When we do that, I think we're all three very good players that think the game well and I think it will be an advantage to us if we can do that."

And both O'Reilly and Perron will do whatever they can to help the younger statesman on their line out.

"We're excited for him," Perron said. "I think me and O'Ry will try and help him out as much as we can, but I also think that he's helping us out a lot too. He's going to the front of the net, he's doing a lot of work in the corner and he can get us the puck with his work ethic and all that. I think we're excited to play with him. I think there's always guys that you play with that find a way to elevate your game. That's what O'Ry does for me personally, and I'm sure he does that to 'Sanny' as well and hopefully we can help 'Sanny' out a little bit."

Sanford, who has 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) in 99 NHL regular-season games, took the time in this short summer, after getting to take the Stanley Cup to his father Michael's grave site, to work on what can give him some consistent balance.

"I just worked on a lot of the things that were making me successful at that time, playing hard, playing physical and being able to hang onto pucks," Sanford said. "For me, that all starts with my size and my strength, so the big focus for me was with a short summer, being able to stay strong and put on some weight. I think that went pretty well and I'm feeling pretty comfortable and confident coming into this year.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Zach Sanford (right) and teammates David Perron (left to right), Vince
Dunn, Ryan O'Reilly and Alex Pietrangelo listen to coach Craig Berube
during training camp sessions

"Nothing's guaranteed. Nothing's promised. I'm going to have to earn it and I'm going to have to work to keep it."

A message Sanford knows all too well that Berube will hold him to.

"We took him out after, I think, it was two games against Winnipeg, but when he went back in, he figured it out," Berube said. "These younger guys are just becoming real good pros. Day in and day out, putting the work in and practice and putting the work in in games and understanding that you've got to make sure that you stay on top of things, because if you don't, there's other guys that want to take your job." 

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