Zach Sanford\'s stock rose high enough that he was invited to the NHL draft combine, where most teams took an interest. (Photo by Nick Turchiaro/NHLI via Getty Images)
With 20 interviews scheduled at the draft combine in Toronto, Zach Sanford had a busy couple of days. But if scouts are correct about his potential, his calendar is going to be booked with NHL dates in the future.
“He’s a lanky kid, but the upside is huge,” said one scout. “Size, hands, definitely a lot to like.”
Listed at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Sanford was one of the leanest players to test at the combine. With just 7.4 percent body fat, he tied for third in that category out of more than 100 prospects. But the questions from NHL teams in the interview portion of the event weren’t about his diet habits.
“A lot was on my progress this season,” Sanford said. “I had a slow start, then finished on really strong. Kinda came out of nowhere compared to everyone else who had a set trail their whole career.”
Sanford made the jump this season from Pinkerton Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, to the Eastern Junior League’s Middlesex Islanders, a team in its first year of existence.
“It was tough at first, but part of it was my fault,” Sanford said. “I was working hard, but talking to coach (Sean) Tremblay I started working on the smaller things and had more success.”
The rookie went scoreless in his first seven games with Middlesex before breaking out for three assists in an 11-4 romp over the South Shore Kings. Overall, the New Hampshire native would tally 12 goals and 36 points in 37 games before ripping up the playoffs for eight points in seven games. Unfortunately, his Islanders fell to the Jersey Hitmen in the final.
“It was tough to lose, but we had a good run for a first-year program,” he said. “Bunch of young guys. Gave the new program a good face.”
Along the way, the Islanders took out the Valley Jr. Warriors, a team featuring Ryan Fitzgerald. Like Sanford, Fitzgerald is draft eligible this year and committed to Boston College. But Sanford will be waiting an extra year before he heads to the Eagles, meaning next season could find him in Waterloo, Iowa, home of the United States League’s Black Hawks.
“Still not 100 percent sure,” Sanford said. “That’s where I’m leaning towards, but I could stay in Middlesex.”
As for the Boston College commitment, Sanford had several reasons to play for the Eagles on top of their steady appearance at the top of the standings.
“A lot of it was the reputation,” he said. “Coach (Jerry) York is probably one of the greatest coaches out there. Another part was the school, it’s a great school.”
Sanford models his game after Toronto Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk and like JVR, tries to use his imposing frame to his advantage.
“A big part is puck protection,” he said. “Being a big kid with long arms, long legs out there. Winning 1-on-1 battles and my defensive play are some other things I’ve been focusing on a lot to improve on.”
One trait NHL teams look for in a player is how he grew over the course of a season, which is why Sanford’s ascension has been so noticeable. Assuming he can contribute in Waterloo next year or dominate with Middlesex, he’ll be well on his way once he hits Boston College and beyond.
“Last year at Pinkerton he was dominant,” said the scout. “It took him a while to get adjusted to the EJHL, but they brought him along slowly and you could see he had the offensive upside.”
Now the question is which NHL franchise will catch this rising star come June 30?