Over the past few weeks, The Win Column has ranked the Calgary Flames’ 15 best prospects in advance of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
We’ve covered first-round picks, undrafted free agents, boom-or-bust seventh-rounders, and two dudes named Marty and Matty. It’s been a ride, and we’re glad you’ve stuck with us through it all.
Today, we’ve arrived at our consensus No. 1 prospect. All five of our voters agreed: Connor Zary ranks among all others in the Calgary Flames’ pipeline. He was the only player to receive uniform placements across the board.
Perhaps Zary was the predictable choice for the top spot; after all, the Flames selected him in the first round just last year. Even so, while their farm system pales in comparison to many others in the NHL, the Flames have plenty of promising youngsters obtained in a variety of different ways.
Behind Zary in our top-five, we listed another first-rounder, a seventh-round pick, a sixth-rounder, and somebody who never heard his name called at an NHL Entry Draft. We gave plenty of love to a variety of players who have—to this point—overcome significant obstacles to become legitimate NHL prospects.
Zary’s draft pedigree may have slightly aided his rise to the top of our list. However, in the year since the Flames made him the 24th selection in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Zary’s stock has already risen relative to his draft position. There’s so much to like about his numbers and his game.
Zary’s strengths and weaknesses
Zary is a natural centre who also thrives on either wing. In his debut professional go-round with the 2020–21 Stockton Heat, Zary primarily lined up on the left side of the team’s top line.
While operating from that position, Zary was able to use his superb playmaking ability to routinely set up a terrific shooter in Adam Ruzicka. He also frequently acted as a triggerman after being on the receiving end of passes from Matthew Phillips.
In many respects, Zary was able to emulate and combine some of the best attributes present in both of his linemates. Ruzicka is a pure shooter who finds his way to the high-leverage areas of the offensive zone; Phillips is an elusive skater with excellent passing and puck-handling ability.
Zary is neither as good a shooter as Ruzicka nor is he as shifty as Phillips. While Ruzicka is noticeably big (6’4″, 202 pounds) and Phillips is noticeably small (5’7″, 155), Zary has the build of a prototypical top-six forward (6’0″, 188).
While Zary can’t match Phillips’ stickwork, he might be a better passer than our fourth-ranked prospect. Even at the AHL level, he distributed the puck with near-surgical precision and had the gall to attempt passes other forwards wouldn’t dare try (or even consider).
Seriously, check this one out:
Or, perhaps, this one:
Zary has a quick and accurate wrister. While he isn’t an ultra-high-volume shooter like Ruzicka, he was able to pepper opposing goaltenders at an impressive rate as a 19-year-old AHL rookie.
Few members of the 2021 Heat could match Zary’s edgework. He doesn’t have the quickest boots but he’s able to change his pace in an instant to open up lanes and he keeps his feet moving when in pursuit of the puck.
Zary’s on-ice results
Zary registered three goals and seven points—all of them at even-strength—in his first nine AHL games before returning to the Western Hockey League.
He took 15 shots in those nine games, firing six on goal (a season-high) against the Belleville Senators on Mar. 3. Zary recorded points in five consecutive AHL games between Feb. 24 and Mar. 6.
The Heat outscored their opponents by a 9-7 margin during Zary’s shifts. In his time on the bench, Stockton scored 17 goals and allowed 14.
Zary thrived upon his return to the Kamloops Blazers, amassing 24 points (six goals, 18 assists) in just 15 games and averaging 3.07 shots per game. The Blazers outscored their opponents 18-10 with Zary on the ice—dropping to 18-16 without him—and he averaged 17:20 per game (estimated by Pick224), up from 15:26 with Stockton.
Zary’s next steps
In 2020–21, Zary received his first taste of professional hockey. This season, he’ll be all-in. Zary will be eligible to join the Heat on a full-time basis in 2021–22 and should play a full season for the team in a top-six role.
With one of Ruzicka and Glenn Gawdin likely set to graduate to the Flames, there should be a spot high in the lineup for Zary to potentially play centre. Either way, it’s critical he gets plenty of high-leverage professional reps under his belt as a 20-year-old.
Despite being a 2020 pick, Zary is just six months younger than Jakob Pelletier and only missed the cut-off for the 2019 draft by 10 days. Relatively speaking, he’s “old.” The Flames have lots of forwards up for contract renewals this off-season and may elect to move in a younger direction for 2021–22; if so, Zary could be heavily scrutinized in training camp for one of Calgary’s final spots up front.
Even if Zary doesn’t crack the Flames, he’ll be in good hands with the Heat and should be able to make forward progress in his development at the AHL level. If Zary scores early and frequently with Stockton, he could very soon find himself in line for a promotion to the NHL.