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Zachary Sanford, Jimmy Vesey happy with NHL choices

Sanford left college early to sign with Capitals, Vesey stayed and joined Rangers as free agent

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Zachary Sanford had heard recruiting pitches before.

The Washington Capitals rookie forward was at Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire in 2013 when Boston College coach Jerry York convinced him to choose that school rather than the University of New Hampshire.

In July, Sanford had to make another difficult choice, between staying at Boston College for another year, which would have made him eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and turning pro. This time the Capitals, who selected him in the second round (No. 61) of the 2013 NHL Draft, were the ones doing the recruiting.

"I was pretty set on going back to school and they told me I had a chance to make the team," Sanford said. "I thought I might not ever get this opportunity again, so I had to take advantage of it."

Sanford, 21, signed a three-year, entry level contract July 11, and the decision has turned out well for him and the Capitals. After a strong training camp, he made the opening-night roster and has played in three of their first five games.

Although Sanford has yet to get his first point, he said he's felt more comfortable with each game.

Video: NYR@WSH: Lundqvist denies Sanford with pad save

"It's been crazy, but it's fun," Sanford said. "The first game was a little overwhelming for me and it took me a little bit to get comfortable. But then in the second game I felt a lot more comfortable. I was able to make a lot more plays and I was more comfortable on the ice with the environment and with my linemates too."

New York Rangers rookie forward Jimmy Vesey knows what Sanford is going through. He faced a similar decision last season but chose a different path. A 2012 third-round pick (No. 66) of the Nashville Predators, they tried to convince him to leave Harvard University early. Instead, he stayed for his senior season, had 24 goals and 46 points in 33 games and won the Hobey Baker Award, which is given to the top men's NCAA player.

Then, instead of signing with the Predators, or the Buffalo Sabres after they traded for his rights, Vesey, 23, opted to become an unrestricted free agent Aug. 16 and signed an entry-level contract with the Rangers.

"To be honest, my first two years of college were kind of just average," Vesey said. "My junior year I had a good year, and at that point, I had already done three years so I definitely wanted to get a degree from school. That was important to me. I was able to do that, and ultimately went to free agency."

Vesey is off to a good start with three goals in his first six games, including two in a 3-2 victory against the Capitals on Saturday. But knows he has more work to do.

Video: NYR@WSH: Vesey goes five-hole for second of the game

"I've been getting a lot of chances and I'm still figuring out how to score goals in this League," Vesey said. "It's the best League in the world so I'm just trying to learn every day and get better."

The Capitals were aware of what happened with Vesey and faced a similar situation this summer with forward Thomas Di Pauli, their fourth-round pick (No. 100) in the 2012 draft. Di Pauli also opted for unrestricted free agency after finishing his college career at Notre Dame and signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Aug. 19. 

The Capitals didn't want to risk going that far with Sanford, so they started to make their pitch for him to turn pro during their development camp in late June.

"We kind of tracked him and watched him in college and tried to be aggressive on getting him to be in our lineup this year," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. "We tried to recruit him, tried to make a good sales pitch that he'd have a good chance to make the team."

That was the main selling point for Sanford, but the Capitals also pushed him by expressing concern that his development might stagnate if he stayed in college another year. Capitals coach Barry Trotz told Sanford that players he was ahead of at development camp last year had surpassed him after getting a year of experience in the American Hockey League.

"To me it was a red flag that it was time for him to take the next challenge," Trotz said. "Not be a big fish in a small pond, but play against real men night in and night out to develop and move forward."

Like with Vesey, getting a college degree is important to Sanford, who was two years into his studies in Boston College's Carroll School of Management after opting to play for Waterloo in the United States Hockey League for a season before beginning his college career. Finishing his remaining classes will take some effort, but Sanford and his academic adviser have developed a plan.

"I'm from right around [Boston] and I work out down there, so I'll be able to take some classes in the summer, and maybe after I get comfortable here take an on-line class during the season," he said.

Although Sanford and Vesey worked out and skated together with a group of players in the Boston area this summer, they say they never discussed the paths they chose. Sanford understands the decision Vesey made, but believes opportunity the Capitals offered was best for his future.

He said he wouldn't be surprised if other NHL teams followed their example in aggressively trying to get their draft picks to leave college early. 

"It's going to be real important for NHL teams to try to get those guys to leave," Sanford said. "It's tough to leave school early if you've got your mind set on [staying], but I think a lot of teams are thinking more down the road."

But Vesey said he isn't sure if the aggressive approach will make much of a difference.

"I wasn't the first to do it," Vesey said of his route to unrestricted free agency. "Teams might start doing that, but the Ivy League schools might be a little bit different just because of the education factor."

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