The St. Louis Blues locked down a significant restricted free agent (RFA) by signing forward Zach Sanford on Monday to a two-year, $3 million contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $1.5 million.
For Sanford, who proved himself late in the season with a tremendous run in the Stanley Cup Final, it’s a perfect bridge deal to continue to show his skill. For the Blues, it’s a serious commitment to a player they see as a significant part of their future.
From Boston to Boston
Sanford was born in Salem, Massachusetts, just half an hour northeast of Boston. He played at Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire during high school, and went on to play at Boston College. From there, the Washington Capitals drafted him 61st overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. He made the opening night roster at the start of the 2016-17 season, and made his NHL debut at the age of 21 on Oct. 13 of that campaign.
Sanford was a standout young player. At 6-foot-4, 207 pounds, but with silky hands, he brought a tantalizing combination of size and skill. The Blues identified him as a player to target, and they got their man as part of the return for Kevin Shattenkirk when they sent him to Washington at the 2017 Trade Deadline.
Sanford made a quick impact for the Blues, scoring a goal in his second game with the team. He got off-and-on playing time at the end of the season, and even played in the postseason, recording six shots across four games. The future looked bright.
Unfortunately for Sanford, a shoulder injury kept him out of the NHL for the entirety of the 2017-18 season. He played 20 games in the AHL and collected seven points between stints on the injured reserve. But he came back strong last season, collecting eight goals and 12 assists in 60 games. At times, he looked like a potential star, particularly when playing on a line with Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron.
It was a traumatic season for Sanford, who lost his father in the preseason. But his campaign ended in the best way possible: scoring the final Blues’ goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, a game his team won. To add to the poetry, he scored that goal in Boston, the city where he grew up and attended college. It was a storybook ending to an incredible year.
The Blues were quick to reward Sanford with a two-year extension at a $1.5 million AAV. This season, that contract is most comparable to the two-year, $3.3 million contract the Tampa Bay Lightning gave to RFA Cedric Paquette and the two-year, $2.4 million contract the Edmonton Oilers gave to Jujhar Khaira as an unrestricted free agent (UFA).
Khaira and Sanford are especially similar players, with comparable age (both are currently 24, though the former turns 25 next month), size (6-foot-4) and production (Khaira had two fewer points in the same number of games this season). But Sanford is expected to have the higher ceiling, and so the Blues made a slightly bigger commitment to him.
Sanford showed just what kind of player he can be in the Stanley Cup Final, collecting four points in five games, including the aforementioned final goal, and going plus-five over that time. He has the potential to be a high-end middle-six player with scoring upside. For the Blues, this contract is a commitment to making him a part of their future. While he won’t be guaranteed playing time night in and night out, he is much less likely to ride the shuttle to their AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage.
Of course, every action has a consequence, and one potential consequence of retaining Sanford could be losing Pat Maroon. Jeremy Rutherford has reported that the Blues expect to lose the hometown player, despite his desire to remain with the team, as he can find more money and better term elsewhere. That decision, while unpopular, makes perfect sense for St. Louis, as they now have a player like Sanford to step right into his role.
Sanford’s Future is Bright
The Blues have had big plans for Sanford ever since targeting him in the Shattenkirk trade. Now, they’ve committed to those plans, giving him $1.5 million a year for two seasons.
All that’s left is for Sanford to further validate the team’s faith in him. It will likely be a while before Blues fans treat him with the same regard they do Maroon, but if he continues to perform like he did in the Stanley Cup Final, he just might get there someday.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.