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Zach Sanford ready for graduate-level work with the Capitals

Zach Sanford handles the puck away from Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy. (Molly Riley/Associated Press)

In the Washington Capitals' courtship of forward Zach Sanford, Coach Barry Trotz decided to make a personal pitch. He told Sanford that after playing hockey for two seasons at Boston College, it was time for more mature competition "against men." He told him that younger prospects had passed him in their development by spending a season in the American Hockey League. Finally, he told him that he believed he was ready for professional hockey.

“Kind of becomes a no-brainer when your head coach is actively recruiting you,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said with a laugh. “I don’t know if I would say no. ‘Yeah, he likes me and wants me to come play, but no, I’m going to stay in college?’”

Sanford took a few days to talk it over with his parents, but the Capitals had persuaded him, providing a push that since has been validated. Competing for a roster spot on a team that seemingly had just one opening at forward, Sanford not only made the team but also appears poised to start the season on the third line, leap-frogging several veteran forwards.

“You know, honestly, I tried not to have any expectations,” Sanford said. “I just came in and worked as hard as I can to maybe turn some heads and kind of show what I’ve got for maybe the future and not so much right now.

“But now it’s time to show what I’ve got for right now.”

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Playing his first professional hockey games during the preseason while also trying to make the opening night roster, Sanford never appeared rattled. When Washington moved him from his natural position of center to the wing, his play there was so poised that Trotz compared him to former Capitals forward Joel Ward. His “calmness” has enabled him to make plays along the wall rather than just “whacking the puck out,” Trotz said.

“You judge players on what they do when they’re under a pressure situation, and he’s made calm, correct plays on a very consistent basis every time he’s been on the ice,” Trotz said. “To me, when you make those right decisions and you’re not fazed by the pressure and the competition and you can think through that, then it shows me that you’re a pretty good pro.”

At 6 feet 4 and 191 pounds, Sanford, a 2013 second-round pick, long has stood out at Washington’s development camps. But as Trotz watched the 21-year-old playing beside the organization’s other prospects in early July, he said he saw some “red flags.” Sanford scored 13 goals and 26 assists in 41 games with the Eagles in his sophomore season, but Trotz was concerned that prospects younger than Sanford had progressed past him simply because they were playing better competition with the Hershey Bears in the AHL.

This summer, some prospects took advantage of a loop-hole in the collective bargaining agreement that allows them to spurn the team that drafted them and become unrestricted free agents after playing four seasons in college. Forward Jimmy Vesey, whom Nashville drafted in the third round in 2012, played four seasons at Harvard, became an unrestricted free agent Aug. 15 and signed with the New York Rangers. Washington experienced the same scenario with center Thomas DiPauli, whom they drafted in the fourth round in 2012. After playing four years at Notre Dame, DiPauli picked Pittsburgh in unrestricted free agency.

The Capitals didn’t want the same to happen with Sanford.

“That accelerates it, yeah,” MacLellan said. “It puts an urgency to it. Because what happens if he decides to go to Aug. 15 next year? You never know what’s going on behind the scenes with relationships with agents and circumstances that we decided, ‘Let’s try and get him. Let’s be aggressive on it.’ And we got him, and so far, it’s worked out.”

Trotz has said that Sanford’s play will dictate his playing time, and to this point, he has earned it. In the preseason finale, a dress rehearsal for the Capitals’ season opener on Thursday in Pittsburgh, Sanford was the third-line left wing with center Lars Eller and Marcus Johansson. For a team that has prioritized adding scoring depth, Sanford’s place there is a high compliment.

After the game, Trotz indicated that was a forward trio that could stick: “You’ve got a little bit of size on that line, you’ve got a little bit of weight, you’ve got some experience, you’ve got some speed, you’ve got some creativity and they’re responsible defensively, so that being said, that sounds like a pretty good line for any line.”

With each round of training camp cuts Sanford survived, he made more of an effort to befriend his new teammates. He said a team-wide round of golf on a day off in North Carolina helped the bonding process. How comfortable Sanford should get in Washington will be up to him.

“Right now, I don’t see any reason to limit his ice time based on the way he’s played,” Trotz said. “His play will dictate that. . . . I will deal with it just like we do with every player. We want a young player to develop, so if he’s not in a situation where he’s getting the ice time we need, then we’ll put him in a situation that he needs to be in.

“I think we had a real clear message with Zach when he decided to come out of college. We felt he was ready to come out and contribute.”