Blues’ Sanford Faces Uncertain Future Amid Criticism

There was a time in St.Louis, not too long ago, when Zach Sanford was the toast of the town.

Lately, he’s been more of the “roast of the town,” as his spotty offensive production and crucial, game-changing mistakes have kept the St. Louis Blues in much of a funk this season. And while he is only one of many problems facing the Blues, his woes continually get top-billing as a topic du jour in fan groups.

For all those who express frustration with the budding young star, there is one person who has the only vote on Sanford’s immediate future: coach Craig Berube.

Just what is Sanford’s future in St. Louis is a big question. Fans opine that Sanford has compromising photos of Berube because there is no other reason why the coach keeps playing him. At the trade deadline, critics wondered if he could be on the move. Others had hoped he would be moved.

Playing in his fourth season in the NHL, Sanford had a bullet by his name when he came to St. Louis. He was traded from the Washington Capitals with a first-round draft pick in 2017, and a second-round draft pick in 2019 (conditional) and Brad Malone for Pheonix Copley and Kevin Shattenkirk.

Zach Sanford, Mikko Rantanen, zach sanford, vladislav Kamenev
St. Louis Blues left wing Zach Sanford and Colorado Avalanche center Valdislav Kamenev (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

In three seasons, he’s played in 21 playoffs games, winning the Stanley Cup in 2019 with the Blues. He had a goal and three assists that magical season over eight playoff games.

Last year in the truncated COVID Cup season, Sanford scored 16 goals and added 14 assists for 30 points. Statistically, it was his best season so far in his short career. This season, which has seen more lows than highs for the Salem, Mass., native, he’s scored nine goals and added six assists. He is minus-13.

In late February, Sanford had what must’ve been the most frustrating two games of his career. Two turnovers at key moments in games against the Los Angeles Kings cost the Blues victories.

From Top-Nine Minutes to This

“He is due to be a restricted free agent (RFA) this offseason, and is currently making $1.5 million against the cap,” according to an article by Blues writer Ethan Carter in The Hockey Writers. “He has scored eight goals in 36 games while playing a top-9 role, which is less than ideal after a breakout season when he scored 16 goals in 2019-20.”

“The goals are fine, but everything else he does has been subpar. He hasn’t been strong on his stick or defensively aware whatsoever. To be fair, the Blues have gotten a lot out of Sanford in his three and half seasons in St. Louis. He was the 61st-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.”

Zach Sanford St. Louis Blues
Zach Sanford, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“The return on that deal has turned out to be solid, but Sanford has been disappointing this season, no doubt,” The Hockey Writers’ Carter reported. “I’d be surprised if their return in a deal for him is even close to significant.”

General manager Doug Armstrong stood pat and did not strike any deals at the trade deadline. He’s standing by Sanford and this 2021 Blues team. Berube is too — to an extent. The leash is short.

“Craig Berube wasn’t overly critical of the 26-year-old forward when asked in February about Sanford’s recent struggles,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in February. (from ‘Berube displaying patience with Sanford, despite struggles,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2/23/21)

“I think he was better (Monday) night,” Berube told the Post, referring to the Blues’ 3-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings (on Feb. 22). “I thought he actually did a lot of good things. The thing for me is having more awareness and understanding that the game is fast and you gotta do things quickly. He’s gotta get a little bit quicker step in his stride right now and quicker puck decisions right now more than anything.”

Berube Undeterred by Sanford’s Mistakes

A critical Sanford turnover led directly to a big goal by the Kings’ Dustin Brown, giving LA a 2-0 lead late in the second period in that Feb. 22 game. Another turnover, also in the Blues’ defensive zone, led directly to an Evander Kane goal, which got the San Jose Sharks off and running on Feb. 20 in a 5-4 San Jose victory.

While Berube mostly shrugs off Sanford’s gaffes, by March, he couldn’t overlook the struggles and criticism his young star was facing this season. At one point, Sanford only produced one goal in an 18-game stretch — hardly the production the Blues expected.

The scene turned ugly in a key game against Colorado on April 22. The Blues were fighting hard to keep pace with the speedy Avalanche, both in the standings and on the ice.

“And then, in a scene the Blues have seen too often this season, a turnover by forward Zach Sanford ended up in the back of the net for a 1-1 score with 32 seconds left in the first period. They would go on to lose 4-2 to the Avs, who clinched a playoff spot, on Thursday at Enterprise Center. They remained one point back of Arizona for that final playoff spot with 12 games left in the regular season, including three in hand on the Coyotes.” (‘Will Blues coach Craig Berube finally scratch Zach Sanford after his latest costly mistake? ‘He’s got to learn’,’ The Athletic, 4/23/21).

“The Blues had many ongoing issues in their third straight loss — seriously, what is going on in the second period? — but there’s no mistaking that Sanford’s turnover changed the game,” The Athletic reported.

In that game against the Avs, Sanford failed to clear a pass out of the Blues defensive zone. Tyson Jost intercepted his errant pass, dished it to Brandon Saad, who deked goalie Jordan Binnington to even the score. That allowed the Avs to tie the game, in which they eventually prevailed, 4-2.

Berube did not pin the entire loss on Sanford, but he definitely let it be known he was not happy with his 26-year-old forward.

“We cause our own problems,” Berube told The Athletic. “This is a good enough hockey team to get through this, but in saying that, there’s got to be a lot more composure within our veteran group here. We have a lot of veterans on this team that have won and have won a championship, and we’ve got to have more composure in our game. That’s the bottom line. Things are going to happen out there that are out of your control, but we’re not controlling what we can control. The mistakes we make that get put in our net, that’s all on us. That’s on us.”

The Healthy Scratch

Berube can control the lineup, The Athletic reported, and with (Robert) Thomas returning after missing four games with a shoulder injury, the coach made Sanford a healthy scratch on April 24.

Sanford has nine goals and 14 points in 42 games this season, but at five-on-five, he’s been on the ice for 16 goals for and 23 goals against. He’s lost his spot on the second line to Sammy Blais, and against Colorado, he was on the fourth line, logging only 12:52 of ice time.

“Me especially, I think I’ve had some bad (turnovers) lately,” he told the Post-Dispatch in February. “That’s how it goes sometimes. You just gotta get back to the details and pay more attention to that and be harder on pucks.”

Asked about his confidence level, Sanford told the Post: “For me, it hasn’t been where it’s been in the past this year. But I think I’m slowly getting it back, and just getting back to my game. When I’m on those little details … and moving my feet and being hard on pucks, I think I’m a completely different player than when I’m not doing those things.”

Perhaps the answer to Sanford’s placement in the lineup despite less than impressive results comes from St. Louis writer Dan Buffa. (from ‘5 reasons (or excuses) why Zach Sanford is still starting for the Blues,” Dose of Buffa, 5/4/21).

“(Sanford) scored a goal in the same game where the Blues clinched the Stanley Cup Final, and that gives him magical powers for 2 years,” Buffa wrote. “He’s really Craig Berube’s bastard child.”

The Comeback Kid?

Name-calling aside, Sanford knows the task ahead is steep both for him and his Blues. And it has to start at home, where the Blues have been abysmal this season. His résumé boasts of a Stanley Cup title, something no one can ever take away from him.

“One of the main reasons for the Blues’ unfathomable 4-7-3 record at home this season is their troubles scoring consistently at home,” according to the Post-Dispatch. They are scoring nearly a goal per game less at Enterprise Center than on the road this season, currently ranking third in road scoring (3.57 goals per game) and 25th in home scoring (2.64).” (from ‘As Blues’ stretch run starts, 5 simple steps to the postseason,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3/17/21).

Why the huge disparity?

“Nothing really popping out at me,” Sanford told the Post. He’s scored only two of his eight goals at home. “I think sometimes things just happen like that for whatever reason. Being able to win at home is so important.”