Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Calgary Flames rookie Connor Zary is quietly one of the NHL’s top freshmen
By Ryan Pike2 months ago
Since the franchise began playing games in Georgia way back in 1972, there’s no award that the Calgary Flames have captured more often than the Calder Memorial Trophy, given every season to the league’s top rookie. While a lot of the awards chatter has centred around Chicago Blackhawks freshman Connor Bedard – and rightfully so, he’s awesome at hockey – there’s another player that’s crept into the conversation.
Another Connor, in fact.
Since his call-up at the end of October, Calgary Flames forward Connor Zary has quietly been one of the top rookies in the National Hockey League.
Looking back at Flames history, their rookies have been voted the winners of the Calder Trophy five times: Eric Vail (1974-75), Willi Plett (1976-77), Gary Suter (1985-86), Joe Nieuwendyk (1987-88) and Sergei Makarov (1990-91). Since Makarov’s win – as a 31-year-old, prompting a revision of the award’s rules – no Flame has come close to capturing the Calder.
In the Salary Cap Era (2005 to present), four Flames have received serious Calder consideration or votes: Dion Phaneuf (2005-06, finished third in voting), Sean Monahan (2013-14, eighth), Johnny Gaudreau (2014-15, third) and Matthew Tkachuk (2016-17, seventh). They had other promising youngsters during this period, but these four players were all mature enough as players to step into the NHL as first-year pros and perform well – and the Flames had the spots available for rush youngsters to do so.
In this context, the 22-year-old Zary is a bit of a unicorn. While Johnny Gaudreau had played three years of college before he went pro full time to start the 2014-15 season, he stepped right into the NHL without playing a single shift in the American Hockey League. Ditto Phaneuf, Monahan and Tkachuk. Zary took a much different path.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Western Hockey League delayed the start of its season in 2020-21. Zary played in the World Juniors, then played nine AHL games with the Stockton Heat (as a 19-year-old) before rejoining Kamloops for the WHL season. He then played the full 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons with the Flames’ AHL affiliates before getting his call-up on Oct. 31. When he made his NHL debut, he had played 140 AHL games.
But while Zary’s NHL arrival may have been delayed compared to some of his contemporaries, he’s played very well.
Heading into Wednesday’s games, here’s his statistical performance relative to the rest of the NHL’s rookie class:
- Tied for 14th in points (with Nashville’s Luke Evangelista)
- Tied for fifth in goals (with Toronto’s Matthew Knies and Dmitri Voronkov)
- Tied for sixth in plus/minus (with Minnesota’s Marco Rossi)
- Tied for fourth in even strength goals (with Knies)
- Fifth in even strength points
Now, obviously, when you look at the outright scoring races you’ll notice that there’s a fairly significant disparity in terms of games played. Since Zary played the first month of the season with the Wranglers, everybody has played more games than him.
When you scale Zary’s production relative to his games played – literally, his points per game – he compares very favourably with the other rookies:
- Second in points per game (behind only Bedard)
- First in even strength points per game (slightly ahead of Bedard; 0.684 to 0.679)
Now, a few caveats to the rookie scoring race:
- Bedard is nearly four years younger than Zary – Zary was one of the oldest first-year players available in the 2020 NHL Draft, Bedard was one of the youngest players available in the 2023 NHL Draft.
- Bedard is much more productive on the power play than Zary is; on a per-game basis, almost 3.5 times more productive.
- Zary has more to work with, in terms of established NHL players as teammates, than Bedard does.
Even with all those qualifiers, it’s objectively impressive that Zary is scoring at the same rate as Bedard. There’s still many, many months to go, but Zary has forced his way into the Calder conversation and if he continues this level of play, there won’t be just one Connor on voters’ ballots at the end of the season.
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