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Connor Zary went from top prospect in the AHL to Calder Trophy candidate in 2023-24

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Middleton
1 month ago
It would be an understatement to say that the 2023-24 Calgary Flames were a mixed bag of results. The standings were not good (unless you were rooting for the highest place the team could find in the draft lottery), but plenty of individual performances were encouraging for fans, teammates, coaches, and management.
Connor Zary was one of the players who made an immediate impact and was a big part of the Flames’ success during the season.

The past

Zary was selected by the Flames 24th overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. He scored 86 points in 57 games with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League in his draft year.
After playing 15 games with the Blazers in 2020-21, Zary moved up to the AHL to play with the then-Stockton Heat, where he registered seven points in nine games. He also played on the Team Canada World Junior Championship team that won the silver medal, registering seven games and only two points.
Zary played two more seasons at the AHL level, ironing out the flaws in his game. In 2021-22, he played 53 games and only registered 25 points. But, in 2022-23, he took a huge step forward both regarding the number of games he played and the number of points he scored, with 58 in 72. He also scored four points in the Wrangler’s nine playoff games.
After his impressive season at the AHL level, questions were raised as to whether or not he would have the chance to make the NHL roster. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it straight out of the gate, but he soon began to play out of his mind at a lower level and forced the hand of the new Flames regime.

The present

In six games with the Wranglers in 2023-24, Zary scored 10 points before being called up, and from there, he inserted himself right into the Calder Trophy conversation.
In 63 games with the NHL squad, Zary posted 14 goals and 20 assists for a total of 34 points. Among NHL rookies, he sat tied with Dmitri Voronkov of the Columbus Blue Jackets for eighth. However, his points per 60 were where he separated himself in the race. He was one of five rookie skaters to have played a minimum of 900 minutes and have two points per 60 minutes. He was second with 2.12 points per 60, only behind Connor Bedard, who finished with 2.72.
Not only did he have a strong finish in the box score, but he also had stronger defensive metrics than most of the rookies who played this season. According to Evolving-Hockey’s metrics, he was third in expected goals against per 60 minutes behind Tyson Foerster of the Philadelphia Flyers and Will Cuylle of the New York Rangers.
Below is his regularized adjusted plus-minus chart from Evolving-Hockey:
Even though the likelihood that he is closely considered for the Calder Trophy is low simply because it began to be a “Bedard vs. Brock Faber” race three-quarters of the way through the season, Zary’s performance was almost as stellar as anyone could possibly ask for on both ends of the ice.

The future

Zary was a major piece of arguably the Flames’ best line with Nazem Kadri and Martin Pospisil. The three of them were a consistent contributor to the team’s offence, defence, and physicality throughout every game. They finished third among all Flames line combinations with at least 100 minutes of time on ice in expected goals for percentage (xGF%). They were a line that head coach Ryan Huska could consistently rely on for any type of role he needed to be filled, and at 22 years old, Zary will only continue to get better and produce at a strong rate.
Next season could be another step in the right direction for a player that everyone around the Flames organization hopes can be an impactful member of the developing core.
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