The stars began to align for Curtis Sanford on July 1.
As the doors swung open on the NHL's free agency period, the veteran goalie walked in with a list of organizations he expected to receive some interest from. The Columbus Blue Jackets weren't among them.
But the move to Columbus has paid off big time for him.
“A guy my age, you just never know what's going to happen out there, what teams are thinking,” Sanford said this week in an interview. “To be honest with you, I didn't even think the Columbus Blue Jackets were even going to be a team that was going to be in the mix for myself. ...
“It's one of those things that you look back on and you're just happy it's worked out the way it has.”
Sanford had a history with Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel and goaltending coach Ian Clark and jumped at the opportunity to sign a one-year, two-way deal with the organization. However, it was made clear he would be No. 3 on the depth chart — making him the starter for the American Hockey League's Springfield Falcons.
Truth be told, that was exactly what the 32-year-old expected after two and a half seasons out of the NHL. He last served as a backup for the Vancouver Canucks, who put him on waivers in January 2009 and sent him to the Manitoba Moose. Sanford spent the last two years with the Hamilton Bulldogs.
But he continued to believe he could play in the NHL and has set about proving it over the last couple weeks. With No. 1 goalie Steve Mason struggling amid the worst start in franchise history and No. 2 Mark Dekanich out with a groin injury, Sanford has taken the starting role and run with it.
Heading into Tuesday's game against the Canucks, he had yet to surrender more than three goals in a game while posting a 3-1-2 record, 1.38 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
“It's funny, I feel just as comfortable and confident here now as when I was playing regularly in the AHL,” said Sanford. “It's something that I haven't done at this level for quite some time but I think the last two years in Hamilton have really helped me. I've been able to obviously grow as a goaltender and have been able to improve on a lot of different areas of my game that I needed to work on.”
Sanford's play is one of the main reasons Columbus has pulled out of the dreadful 2-13-2 stretch it started the season with. Who would have guessed that back on July 1 when his signing was lost among a flurry of other moves?
In fact, general manager Scott Howson answered questions from reporters for about 17 minutes that day and only mentioned Sanford's name once — when he listed all of the team's transactions at the outset of the press conference. Howson called the goaltender market “chaotic” on a day that saw him sign both Dekanich and Sanford.
“It was just a wild day with the goaltending, I can't explain how wild it was,” he said.
Clearly, the team looked at a number of different options and Sanford could just as easily have ended up playing somewhere else this season. The native of Owen Sound, Ont., has appeared in more than 100 NHL games despite never being drafted and has learned to live with the uncertainty that comes with the job.
“You always have to be ready when you're on the depth chart,” said Sanford.
“I really didn't get down (on myself) being back in the AHL,” he added. “I always kept a good attitude and I worked hard. You just never know what's going to happen in this game, you just kind of wait for an opportunity and when it comes you just have to be ready for it.”
Often the opportunity arrives at the misfortune of someone else — “You hate to say that because sometimes it takes injuries for it to happen, it really does,” said Sanford — and comes with no long-term guarantee.
Mason and Dekanich are 23 and 25, respectively, and will be counted on at some point again by the Blue Jackets. In the meantime, Sanford will run with the job as long as he can.
“I'm just thankful the coach had enough faith in me to put me in there and things have gone well since,” he said.