The Calgary Flames have spent the last year working furiously to make up their deficit in the provincial “Connor Wars.”
The Battle of Alberta seems to take on a new dimension every year. In 2019, the two teams spent the whole summer exchanging players, with Milan Lucic, Cam Talbot, and Tobias Rieder all joining the Flames while James Neal and Mike Smith headed up north.
But now, Flames general manager Brad Treliving seemingly has Oilers star Connor McDavid in his sights. The Flames added Connor Mackey (tied for fourth on our list) back in March and snagged Connor Zary at the draft last month, undeniably cementing Calgary as a very attractive destination for Connors everywhere.
Well, maybe that’s not exactly what Treliving had in mind when he traded down twice in the first round to acquire Zary, picking up two additional third round picks (Jeremie Poirier and Jake Boltmann) along the way. More likely, Treliving craved the chance to add a highly-rated centre prospect to the Flames’ developmental pipeline, no matter his first name.
Let’s take a look at the pros and Conns—I promise, that’s the last one—of the 24th pick in the 2020 draft, the second-best prospect in the Flames system according to our staff.
How did we get here?
After a successful bantam triple-A career in his hometown of Saskatoon, the Kamloops Blazers selected Zary in the second round, 37th overall, in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. Zary joined the Blazers as a 16-year-old to begin the 2017–18 season and immediately established himself as a capable junior, scoring 11 goals and 29 points in 68 games.
Zary emerged as one of the WHL’s top players as a 17-year-old. He finished second on the Blazers with 67 points in 63 games in the 2018–19 season, leading the club with 43 assists while skating on a formidable line with wingers Zane Franklin and Orrin Centazzo. He was named to Team Canada for the 2019 U-18 World Junior tournament and tied with Calgarian Brayden Tracey for fifth on the team with four goals and seven points in seven games.
In 2019–20, Zary finished fifth in the entire league in scoring with 38 goals and 86 points in just 57 games. The only 2020-eligible prospect to outscore him last year? Seth Jarvis, drafted 13th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes. After his excellent draft year performance, Zary was invited to Hockey Canada’s selection camp in advance of the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. He recorded an assist in his first scrimmage on Saturday (look for #21 in white):
Connor McMichael (@Capitals) sends the rebound home to give Team White a 4-1 lead in the Team Canada Red/White scrimmage.
— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) November 22, 2020
Stats, numbers, and everything therein
At 6′ even and 181 pounds, Zary has the build of a prototypical top-six NHL forward. His shot is an excellent weapon and he’s used it to rack up 62 goals in his last 120 WHL games.
Here’s a number that’s impossible to ignore when discussing Zary: 10. Born on September 25, 2001, Zary missed being eligible for the 2019 draft by just 10 days. He’s one of the oldest prospects from the 2020 draft, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just important to consider when comparing him to, for example, Ridly Greig, a forward who went just four picks later to Ottawa but who was born on August 8, 2002, almost a whole year after Zary.
The Flames could always use another weapon on special teams, and Zary certainly qualifies as one of those. He led all 2020-eligible WHLers with 38 power play points this year (15 goals and 23 assists) to go along with three shorthanded goals.
Those in the know
Joel Henderson, a WHL scout for Dobber Prospects and FC Hockey, was very complimentary when describing Zary’s overall game:
Zary is more of a playmaking C than a scorer but he has a really excellent shot too. I only say more playmaking because his ability to control a puck, adapt to pressure, and saucer a pass in transition is really high level for this draft class. Zary is one of those players who just kinda has to work on everything a little bit, but adding to his acceleration and explosion with his skating is probably the biggest need. He’s not really a stop and start player, so he makes up for it by just being in motion a decent amount and circling in the zones. If he can add more acceleration that’ll just help him all over, including defensively.
Zary’s role can shift a lot. He’s a PP wizard but also is solid on the PK. He’s great as a transition C or controlling the puck on the half-wall. When he’s played in the slot as well, he’s shown he can adjust to passes and get off quick one-timers. His ability to control pucks is his best trait, so he’s able to use that aspect all over the ice just to maintain possession and be dangerous.
On the horizon
This year, the focus for Zary will be to dominate in Kamloops once again whenever the WHL returns. But also, he’ll probably be counted on to play a small role for Team Canada at the World Juniors. It looks reasonably likely that Pelletier will make the team but Zary is less of a lock. If he makes the squad, he’ll probably be looking to make the most of limited minutes, maybe killing penalties. It’ll be a test of his versatility and commitment to playing in every corner of the rink, if he gets the nod. (He’ll be too old to play in the 2022 tournament.)
Zary almost certainly won’t be a Flame at all this year. He’d have to make the team out of camp and it’s hard to imagine coach Geoff Ward viewing him as ready to jump right out of the WHL into the Flames’ lineup, particularly given the likely increase in the rigours and travel in the schedule with the move to a Canadian Division. It’s somewhat feasible that the Flames could give him a small look right at the start without burning his ELC by playing him in more than nine games, but it feels a lot more likely that Jakob Pelletier could be given that treatment (so long as it doesn’t interfere with his duties with Team Canada).
As for when Zary could become an NHL regular, it remains to be seen. He hasn’t signed a contract with the Flames just yet but he likely will in the next couple of months (the Flames signed Jakob Pelletier to an ELC in Sept. 2019, four months after he was drafted). Zary will probably turn pro on a full-time basis in the 2021-22 season (as a 20-year-old) and, depending on how the Flames’ lineup has shifted by then, he could make an immediate jump to the big club.
FlamesNation Top 20 Prospects 2020