The Calgary Flames’ prospects have been flying this season. Rory Kerins has been among the top scorers in the OHL, Arseni Sergeev and Dustin Wolf have been among the top goalies in the USHL and AHL respectively, and Jakob Pelletier has been one of the best rookies in the AHL this season and one of Stockton’s most valuable players.
The one name that has struggled this season, and struggled mightily, has been Connor Zary. So far this season he has only 13 points in 29 games, just south of a half-point-per-game. He has been playing in the Heat’s middle six, but has not been as impactful as he was in his first stint with the team in the early part of last season.
While he has struggled, it is far too early to write him off, as he clearly has much more to give. Let’s break it all down.
How did we get here?
Connor Zary actually started his AHL career one year earlier than expected, getting some time with the pro club while the WHL was on pause last season. In his short nine-game stint, he was an absolute phenom on the ice, putting up seven points in nine games while playing on the wing of the team’s top line.
However, with the WHL starting back up, he headed back to Kamloops to join the Blazers for what would be his final season with the team. Without missing a beat, Zary was putting up nearly two-points-per-game, showing himself to be far too good for the WHL. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by a brutal head shot that left him with a concussion to end the season. That said, he finished the year second in primary-points-per-60 while shooting just a touch over 13%.
In TWC’s annual prospect rankings, Zary finished the year as the Flames’ best prospect. He was easily the most exciting prospect in the system at that point, and many expected him to take a step forward in the AHL this season and push for an NHL job as early as this season.
Why has Zary struggled this season?
Not even a week into training camp, Zary fractured his ankle in a rookie game and was sidelined for eight weeks before he was able to rejoin the Heat. Since he rejoined the Heat this season, Zary has struggled to establish himself. He started off his first three games in the league with a single goal and a minus-seven rating. Yikes!
He has since improved substantially, and sits with 13 points in 29 games, and a minus-three rating. Definitely a good step forward. However, in the calendar year of 2021, Zary played in just 40 combined games, less than half of a season, which cannot be good for a prospect’s development nor his ability to find his groove on the ice.
The other reason for his struggles this season has been the team shifting him to play centre at the AHL level. While he did play centre in the WHL, playing centre at the professional level is a very different game. They are responsible not only for winning draws, but for being the primary playmaker and proverbial quarterback on the ice. The play flows through the centre at both ends of the ice, and the centre is also tasked with playing a much heavier two-way game than wingers, typically.
Moving to centre at this level takes a great deal of skill, not to mention hard work. It was not going to be as easy for Zary to play this role, and play this role in the Heat’s bottom six, as it was to play on the wing of the top line alongside Matthew Phillips and Adam Ruzicka. This was going to be a process, and the Heat seem to think he can adapt to this new role given they have kept him in this role all season long.
What’s encouraging is that the Heat have stuck with it. The organization clearly believes in Zary as a centre and they’re willing to endure the growing pains that come with learning that position at the professional level.
Ahead of tonight’s Flames contest, the bookies have predicted the Flames as the favourite, with Betway Sports pricing the Flames at -105 and the Canucks at +190 to win the game in regulation, with an overtime decision being priced at +330.
Zary is finding his groove
Zary’s AHL numbers have not been good for a first round pick. He sits second from the bottom in primary points per 60 minutes among all forwards in his draft class in the AHL, per data from Pick224. The good news is he has seen a pretty steady uptick in points since the season started. Zary has four points in his last three games, and has started to find more consistency and jump in his game, including a beautiful shootout goal to help Stockton beat Bakersfield.
On top of that, Zary just looks more confident on the ice. Earlier in the season, it looked like Zary was getting pushed around in the corners often, and struggling to win board battles, but now he has started to use his size and frame to his advantage, and is muscling his way to the high danger areas. Take a look at this play here:
While he did have an open lane to the net, trying a play like that from below the goal line is a sign of his growing confidence in himself.
Do not write off Zary
Transitioning to the AHL is a big step, and it is as much of a physical transition as a mental one. But his coach Mitch Love had some high praise for the forward, “[He’s] very intelligent with the puck in terms of making plays, making people around him better. He’s gotten a lot better with his play away from the puck as well.”
Zary is almost certainly not going to see NHL time this season, but that’s okay. If he can continue to grow and develop into an elite centreman at the AHL level over the next couple of years, he could turn into one of the better players to come out of the 2020 NHL Draft. Don’t count him out yet, Zary may just surprise us all.