A pre-trade deadline look at Connor Zary’s Calder Trophy case

Photo credit:www.nhl.com/flames/multimedia/galleries/
Jeff Middleton
4 months ago
Connor Zary came into the Calgary Flames lineup with a motivation to stay around, and not only has he done that, but he has pushed his way into the Calder Trophy race averaging just under 15 and a half minutes of ice time.
After playing a few games in the American Hockey League, Zary made his NHL debut, and since then, he has been on a tear. The 22-year-old winger has been playing with Nazem Kadri and Martin Pospisil, and his skill has been able to shine both at even strength and on the power play. But it’s been a while since we’ve looked at Zary’s Calder Trophy case, and with the trade deadline coming up and there seemingly only being one route for the Flames to take, why not revisit this topic?
Zary has played a total of 49 games and scored 29 points, which is fifth among all rookies. But, there are rookies ahead of him who have played just as much as 10 more games, so, taking a look at points per game, he sits at 0.59, which is second in the race only behind Chicago Blackhawks rookie and 2023 first overall pick, Connor Bedard, who is the favourite to win the award despite missing time due to a broken jaw.
The rookies that rank above Zary in points, outside of the Columbus Blue Jackets first-year Dmitri Voronkov, also play a demonstrable amount of time more than he does. Minnesota’s Marco Rossi plays 16:24 on average per night, Minnesota’s Brock Faber, who is either second or first in the race depending on who you ask, plays 25:09(!!!) on average, and Bedard averages 19:13 on a Blackhawks team that would be even worse without him.
But, as much as box score stats can help the investigation into Zary’s case for the Calder get started, it doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s where the analytics come in.
According to Evolving-Hockey, there are 25 rookies who have played at least 500 minutes at 5v5, and Zary ranks ninth in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) with an above-average 52.06. He is behind Buffalo Sabres rookie Zach Benson in eighth and Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Matthew Knies in 10th. For context, Faber ranks sixth with 52.61%, and Bedard ranks 24th with a measly 40.5%, which isn’t necessarily surprising given his poor defensive results on a bad defensive team.
Zary ranks 10th among rookies in expected goals for per 60 (xGF/60) and seventh in expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60). So, while he isn’t in the top five of either category, he’s consistently strong in both, whereas Faber (defence) and Bedard (offence) are pretty one-sided in terms of results.
Among all rookies, Zary is second in goals above replacement (GAR) with 10.9, only behind the Ottawa Senators’ Ridly Grieg (13.5). Faber and Bedard rank fourth and fifth with 10.3 and 6.3, respectively. In expected goals above replacement (xGAR), Zary ranks second again with (11.6), only .2 behind Rossi for first and 1.3 higher than the next player, Tyson Foerster of the Philadelphia Flyers.
For more context, Bedard ranks ninth in xGAR, and Faber ranks 16th out of 27 players with at least 500 minutes of even-strength playing time.
And for fun, here are their regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) charts at even-strength via Evolving-Hockey. First is Zary versus Bedard:
And here is Zary versus Faber:
Of course, it’s important to note that deployment, the team they play on, and their role within that team can make a big difference in the results we see. For example, Faber is playing not only because of his results in “lower minutes” (he was averaging over 23 minutes in the first month of the season, so relative to his 25-minute average currently, it’s lower), so much because of the number of injuries on the Wild backend, particularly to captain Jared Spurgeon. The Wild, as most hockey fans know, is a historically defence-focused team, and John Hynes is a historically defence-focused coach. The same could be said for their previous head coach, Dean Evason.
As for Bedard, he is averaging so much time on ice and earning lots of points (even though his underlying numbers are not great) because, well, it’s as simple as “the Blackhawks need any kind of offence, and he can provide that.”
Zary is playing on a line with two players who can do pretty much everything well, whether it’s forechecking, in-zone defence, rush offence, in-zone offence, and he’s in a system that has helped revitalize the offensive ability of players up and down the lineup. He’s also playing under a coach in Ryan Huska, who has distributed the even-strength playing time pretty evenly throughout the top two or the lines over the course of the season
Will Zary be truly considered for the Calder Trophy over Bedard and Faber unless he goes on a hot streak? It feels unlikely. However, given his results both in the box score and with the underlying numbers, there doesn’t appear to be a reason he shouldn’t continue to be in the conversation. We have long past the “his sample size is too small to make an accurate judgment” period of his season, so there’s no reason he should be excluded from a conversation with the likes of Faber and Bedard, even if you believe one of those other two should win.
Get ready for the Daily Faceoff Live Trade Deadline Show, coming to you on March 8th LIVE from 11 AM to 3 PM EST!! Join Tyler Yaremchuk, Frank Seravalli and friends for 4 hours of non-stop action as they dive deep into the heart of the trade deadline. They will be breaking down every trade, discussing the impact on teams, predicting the playoff picture, and giving you the inside scoop on all the wheeling and dealing happening around the league. Tune in live on March 8th from 11 AM to 3 PM EST for the The Daily Faceoff Live Trade Deadline special you won’t want to miss!

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