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The Blues tangle with the Red Wings at Enterprise Center

The Blues' Zach Sanford goes after a loose puck after getting knocked down on Thursday, March 21, 2019, in the third period of the game against the Detroit Red Wings at Enterprise Center. (Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com)

Training camp usually is a time of optimism for hockey players, a time when anything is possible. For Blues forward Zach Sanford, it’s hard to find a worse time of the year.

Two years ago, he went into his first training camp with the Blues after being acquired in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade and, about 15 minutes into the first practice, was hit into the boards by teammate Dmitrij Jaskin. He suffered a dislocated shoulder and his season was limited to 17 AHL games.

Last year during camp, while Sanford was battling for a roster spot, his father, Michael, died (on Sept. 20). In addition to dealing with the grief from that, he missed enough of camp that he started the season in the minors.

“I’ve had a pretty crazy last two training camps,” Sanford said. “Hopefully there’s no bumps in the road this year and I come out healthy and positive on the other side.”

By his own admission, this is a big season for Sanford. He was in and out of the lineup last season, playing 60 games in the regular season — twice during the season he was briefly sent down to the AHL — but played in only eight of the team’s 26 playoff games. He was dropped from the lineup after the third game of the first-round series, with Winnipeg, and didn’t get back in until Oskar Sundqvist’s suspension created a spot in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Sanford played well enough to stay in, including scoring a goal in Game 7 against his hometown team, the Bruins, as the Blues won the Cup. Think they’ve moved on in Boston? When Sanford took part in a charity game in the area this summer, he got booed.

“It’s a good reason to get booed for, I guess,” he said.

Sanford got a two-year contract from the Blues in the offseason and a raise. The next step is to raise his game — and most importantly, the consistency of a game — to a point at which he’s in the lineup every day. He’ll certainly be getting every opportunity, starting camp where he was at the end of last season, on a line with Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron, which is one of the most attractive pieces of real estate the team has to offer.

“For me and ‘O’Ry,’” Perron said, “we want to help him out as much as we can, but I also think he’s helping us out a lot, too. He’s going to the front of the net, doing a lot of work in the corner and he can get us the puck with his work ethic. I think we’re excited to play with him.”

To improve his consistency, Sanford worked on adding weight over the summer — he said he’s been between 205 and 212 lately — and did lot of weight lifting so he can be stronger on the puck and win more puck battles. Ideally, he wants to land somewhere between 210 and 215 pounds.

“I just worked on a lot of the things that were making me successful at that time,” Sanford said. “Playing hard, playing physical and being able to hang on to pucks. For me, that all starts with my size and my strength, so a big focus for me was, with the short summer, being able to stay strong and put on some weight. I think that went pretty well. I’ve been feeling pretty confident and comfortable coming back into this year.”

The challenge will be bringing that every day. Last season he would play well, then over time his game would weaken until he was a scratch. Then he’d get back in the lineup, do well, and repeat the process. It’s what happened at the start of the playoffs. In Game 3 against Winnipeg, he played just 5:09 and then wound up in the press box watching for six weeks. But when he got back in the Stanley Cup Final, he was hot again.

“I thought that early on in the playoffs he looked a little overwhelmed, maybe,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “Later on, I thought he was strong, competed hard, big body guy, He’s got good hands, can make plays.

“(Consistency) is a big part of it. The other part is, with these younger guys, it’s just becoming real good pros. Day in and day out putting the work in in practice and putting the work in in games and understanding you’ve got to make sure you stay on top of things. If you don’t there’s other guys that want to take your job.”

“I think getting to watch some games,” Sanford said, “it was easy for me to see what made guys successful 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 recover those and stay on it (is important). That all starts in my strength and my size, and heading into this year, that’s a big focus for me personally and I feel confident and I plan on bringing that physicality and that heavy game.”

“When he went back in,” Berube said, “he obviously figured it out.”

On Sanford’s day with the Stanley Cup, he had planned on eating lobster out of it, but they ran out of time for that so his family and friends opted for Jello shots, which may be a step or two down on the elegance chart. (“We skipped a couple of steps,” he said.)

But the best part of the day was bringing the Cup to his father’s grave.

“It was pretty cool,” he said. “I brought some of my pretty close friends and my family. Especially with my sister, to have that moment and bring it back and be able to share it with my dad. My grandparents are buried right there, too, so that was a pretty special moment for my family and me. I definitely won’t forget that.”


Questions as the Blues open camp

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