Over the second half of the season thus far, no Blues player has been as heavily scrutinized as Zach Sanford. Sanford becomes a Restricted Free Agent after this season, one in which he is making $1.5 million. Sanford has played in 47 of the Blues 51 games this season. There has been (on social media at least) a loud and growing contingent for the benching of Sanford, and part of me gets it, but the other half is unclear of what they want instead. Let's investigate what Sanford has given the Blues this season.
One of the most significant areas Sanford has been scrutinized for has been his giveaways of possession. However, if we look at the data (thank you to Natural Stat Trick) about giveaways of Blues forwards this season who have played at least 300 minutes, Zach Sanford has the lowest number of giveaways per 60 minutes played at 0.52. This is twice as low as the second on the team, Brayden Schenn, who averages 1.05 per 60 minutes played. The only players with lower totals are Mackenzie MacEachern (18 games) and Jacob De La Rose (13 games). An area he perhaps should be more heavily scrutinized for is a lack of discipline, particularly regarding staying out of the box. He ranks second among Blues forwards at 0.86 minor penalties taken per 60 minutes played.
If we look at offensive production, Sanford is seventh among forwards in goals per 60 minutes at 0.77. This is higher than offensive staples Vladimir Tarasenko (0.57), Jaden Schwartz (0.56), and Robert Thomas (0.47). However, when looking at total points per 60 minutes, Sanford ranks 13th at 1.2, with only Kyle Clifford ranking lower among forwards with over 300 minutes played. Sanford seems to put the puck in the net fairly decently when playing with better linemates but not great relatively at setting them up. It could be an argument against his playing time. But who exactly would replace Sanford?
Taxi Squad Players
MacEachern is the player we have the most data on for this season, and in the statistical categories we highlighted for Sanford, here is how he ranks:
Minor Pen/60: 0.71
So while Mac has fewer giveaways per game, his stats line up exactly where he is as likely to get a goal this season as he is to turn the puck over. As well as he is as likely to take a minor penalty as he is to obtain a point. These ratios are less favorable than that of Sanford.
Taxi Squad players who could be replacements today include Dakota Joshua, Jacob De La Rose, Austin Poganski, and Nathan Walker. Combined, these players have appeared in 36 games for the Blues. In those games, they have yielded 2 goals and 1 assist. It seems to me that these options at this point wouldn't be any better than Sanford or MacEachern.
The final option I want to explore is probably one that will have the loudest group of supporters once he becomes eligible. Klim Kostin returns to join the Blues after spending the year and winning the Gagarin Cup with Avangard in the KHL. The 22-year-old Russian native is a big body at 6'3" and 212 lbs. He plays a heavy style that seemingly would fit with the lower lines of a Craig Berube-coached team. He racked up penalty minutes with 94 PIM in 67 games (including playoffs) this season. However, Kostin has not played with the Blues since November 23. 2019 and only has 4 games of NHL experience under his belt. I don't see Berube inserting him into the lineup this year unless there is an injury.
The long and the short of it is this: Zach Sanford is fine. He is producing goals at a higher rate than other scoring options on the team. At this stage of the season, you don't want to disrupt the chemistry that has been built up over the season by inserting Kostin. You could take a flyer on MacEachern, but I think the offensive upside of Sanford allows you to play him on a higher line and possibly strike lightning. Get used to Zach Sanford this year, Blues fans.