Updated: Wednesday, February 7, 2018, 2:42 PM
If Flyers captain Claude Giroux watches any of next month’s Olympic hockey tournament, one name might jump out at him.
The Lumberton, N.J., native was chosen 21st in the 2006 amateur draft, one spot ahead of the Flyers captain. A 6-foot-2, puck-moving defenseman who greatly improved once he reached juniors, Sanguinetti was just what the New York Rangers were looking for at the time. In fact, it was surprising he lasted that long.
Now a month shy of 30, Sanguinetti’s odyssey since has tested both his love for the game and his resolve to continue playing it. He’s been traded, demoted and cut by several NHL teams, eventually opting to try his luck on the larger ice of Switzerland’s top professional league, where his game has matured and prospered.
So much that Sanguinetti will be among a slew of second-chance players representing the United States in the Winter Olympics. Team USA is to compete in Group B with Russia, Slovakia, and Slovenia, and it opens the tournament on Wednesday, Feb. 14, against Slovenia.
“That first five seconds when you hear, `You’ve made the team,’ you just can’t describe that feeling,” he said of the phone call he received in mid-December. “You get to the point where you almost can’t say anything back. I was so excited. Just try to keep your emotions down. Just a dream come true and a great opportunity.”
And yet even that moment proved bittersweet. The call was made by the late Jim Johannson, the general manager of the Olympic team and assistant executive director of USA Hockey who died unexpectedly in his sleep on Jan. 21 at age 53. Johannson was the largest voice in the room in choosing the team.
Making those calls, he said before his death, “was one of the most fun days I’ve had.”
The Olympic squad that will represent the United States, in lieu of the NHL pros who stocked the team in the past, is largely comprised of players who headed to Europe after their NHL dream stagnated in the AHL and ECHL. They were picked from a larger pool of players that USA Hockey assembled before the Deutschland Cup in Germany last November.
“I know how much it meant to those players at this point in their careers,” Johannson said a few days after the team was announced. “I know they will represent us well.”
Using it more for assessment than competition, that team lost all three games but held an early 2-0 lead on gold-medal favorite Russia before surrendering five consecutive goals. Sanguinetti scored the only goal in the 2-1 loss to Slovenia in the opener, one of only four goals scored by Team USA over the three games.
An AHL all-star in 2010 who was also deemed the league’s fastest skater, Sanguinetti struggled in his early 20s to develop the balanced two-way game the NHL demands. Traded by the Rangers to the Carolina Hurricanes in June 2010 after two seasons in the AHL, he got a few tastes of NHL action — 45 games in all — but never earned much time of either organization.
Stints in the Vancouver and Buffalo organizations followed, wrapped around an injury-plagued season and a 15-game sampling of the KHL. His most recent two seasons have been spent in Switzerland’s top professional league, where, on the larger scale of international ice and with the wisdom that experience and maturity bring, his career experienced a rebirth.
With HC Lugano of the top Swiss league, he is a first-line defenseman with 24 points in 41 games, a plus-5 who is depended upon for both power play and penalty kill, something mimicked at times during the Americans’ Deutschland Cup trial and error.
“He’s finding his way both as a player and in the style of hockey that it is — a little bit more time, a little bit more puck possession,” Johannson told the Associated Press in November. “That takes time, for those guys to develop that as players, and I think he’s shown that consistency.”
“I would have liked to have learned quicker the defensive side,” Sanguinetti said from his apartment in Switzerland recently. “Balancing my game between the defensive and offensive side. Just getting in that right situation whether it’s an injury or whatever, where you slide right in and you play, and you play enough to play with confidence. And it just kind of builds from there.
“I don’t think I ever got to that point [in the NHL], to where I was comfortable and my game was at its strong points. You play as a sixth defenseman, you don’t get that chance to feel comfortable. So … that’s the main thing for me. I just never got comfortable. Other than that, there’s no real answer. Some players get that break, and others don’t.”
Of the two defenseman drafted immediately ahead of Sanguinetti, only one is still playing — in Austria. David Fischer was not asked to try out for the Olympic team. There are some notable names chosen well after Sanguinetti and Giroux, too. Bruins all-star Brad Marchand was the 71st pick overall, one ahead of New York Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck. Chicago’s Artem Anisimov was chosen with the 54th pick.
Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald was the 160th pick overall.
Opportunity. Maturity. Rebirth. There is a thought that a good showing in Pyeongchang might earn some players a look from some NHL team looking for some late-season depth on defense. Saguinetti said his focus has shifted over the last two years to helping the team that has allowed his game to grow, but …
“My time in the NHL, I didn’t really play the game the way I do now,” he said. “You get a little bit older, you’re smarter. You see the ice better. There’s just something to it. Obviously, if we play our best, and the team wins, and an NHL opportunity arises, that’s a whole different thing.
“It’s hard to say no to the NHL.”