Don’t sleep on Calgary Flames prospect Connor Zary in training camp
Photo credit:Terence Leung/Calgary Wranglers
By Ryan Pike2 months ago
It’s kind of weird to think about a first-round National Hockey League draft choice being an “under the radar” player at training camp. But you could be forgiven for not thinking about Connor Zary, the Calgary Flames’ first-rounder back in 2020, as a sure-fire contender for a roster spot.
The emergence of a few other forward prospects in recent seasons may not have Zary front of mind for fans, but don’t forget about him as players battle for NHL roster spots.
So far, two factors have conspired to keep Zary from the forefront of a lot of fans’ minds.
- Zary had some injury challenges that, along with that pesky pandemic, conspired against him a bit and cost him some early developmental reps.
- The first-rounders taken before and since Zary have really taken off.
Zary was the Flames’ first-rounder back in 2020, selected at 24th overall after the Flames traded down twice (and gained a pair of third-rounders in the process). He was considered a promising 200-foot centre in his draft year. He didn’t boast amazing size (listed at 6′ and 185 pounds) or astonishing offensive numbers, but he was smart, reliable and consistent in the Dub, and scouts figured that he’d be that as he worked towards the pros.
In his Draft+1 season, 2020-21, between the COVID-19 pandemic and injuries, he played just 31 games between the WHL, the World Juniors and a brief AHL stint. His Draft+2 season (2021-22), when he became a full-time AHLer, was diminished because he broke his ankle and he wasn’t really fully up to speed with the Stockton Heat until mid-season.
The 2022-23, his Draft+3 season, was basically his first full season of hockey since being drafted. He was quite good, posting 58 points in 72 games. His production prior to the calendar flipping over to 2023 was impressive – 31 points in 29 games – and while his offensive numbers and overall play dipped a little bit in the back half of the year (27 points in 43 games) he was still quite effective.
But while Zary’s been figuring things out and dealing with injuries, 2019 first-rounder Jakob Pelletier and 2021 first-rounder Matt Coronato quickly found their strides.
(For the curious, here’s how Zary’s games per season compare to Pelletier, Coronato and Honzek in the same years of their development.)
In four seasons since being drafted, Pelletier was named the QMJHL’s most sportsmanlike player, was named to the QMJHL’s first and second all-star teams, was named to the AHL’s all-rookie team, made his NHL debut and won a silver medal at the World Juniors.
In two seasons since being drafted, Coronato was his conference’s playoff MVP, was named to his conference’s all-rookie team and second all-star team, was named a second team All-American, made his NHL debut, and represented his country at both the World Juniors and the World Championships.
In three seasons since being drafted, Zary won a silver medal on the same World Junior team as Pelletier.
Pelletier and Coronato have progressed very quickly. Zary’s progression has been a bit more gradual, but still distinctly positive. He bounced back from his injury-shortened 2021-22 campaign, after all, by playing every game for the Wranglers and being a key centre for a team that won the AHL’s regular season crown in 2022-23.
Asked over the weekend about if Zary was close, Flames head coach Ryan Huska had this response:
“I think he’s close. He’s one of the guys that we hope will show a lot during exhibition. We need that. You need your younger guys to push, and you need them to show that they have something that will impact your lineup. Whether it’s just bringing a certain amount of energy, whether it’s being really good in your own zone, whether it’s chipping in with offence. So he has to show something like our other younger guys do.”
Huska noted that Zary learning to play faster “at this level” is something he needs to work on.
If Zary can unlock the pace piece, he could find himself playing NHL games before very long.
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