Over the next few weeks, The Win Column has ranked the Calgary Flames’ best prospects in advance of the 2022 NHL Draft. Next up in our prospect rankings is the ninth ranked prospect: Connor Zary.
It was a tough season for Zary. Before things get out of hand, yes Zary was our number one ranked prospect in last year’s rankings and now he sits at ninth on the list. We will go into the specifics, but this is more of an indication on the strengths of other prospects than a knock on Zary.
Recency bias is a heck of a drug.
I personally had Zary ranked sixth on my list, while others had him much lower, but it’s safe to say that Zary may be the Flames most “controversial” prospect at this point in time.
Taken 24th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, you’ll remember that Zary was a target of the Flames when they were originally picking at the 19th spot. The Flames were able to move down five spots, in two separate trades, and pick up two additional third rounders that turned into Jake Boltmann and Jeremie Poirier—one of Brad Treliving’s best NHL draft moves during his tenure.
People will be quick to point out that the players drafted before Zary have already made NHL impacts. Braden Schneider, Yegor Chinakov, and Hendrix Lapierre have all appeared for their draft teams, while Zary is still trying to make his mark.
To that I would say that Zary was the player the Flames wanted, and ended up getting plus two additional prospects, and it’s still far too early to make any sort of judgment on the player. He has shown flashes of potential and the team isn’t going to rush his development.
Zary’s strengths and weaknesses
Zary’s biggest adjustment this year was transitioning to the centre of the ice. He is a natural centre who has played on the wings, but Stockton prioritized him playing at this normal position this season. As a result, the transition took a bit of a toll on his numbers.
That being said, Zary is a natural playmaker and passer that really helps his teammates on the ice. Being a natural centre helps this, and he’s able to find those cross-seam and generate something out of nothing. When Zary is on, he plays at a high level.
Zary also possesses a sneaky good wrister. It reminds me a ton of Elias Lindholm in Calgary in terms of just the hold on the puck and ability to generate a lot on a quick wrister. It’s not the same level as Lindholm’s, but just has the same spirit to it:
If Zary can continue to get comfortable down the middle of the ice at the professional level, he will be able to make a significant impact in the Flames organization.
Zary’s on-ice results
Zary has split his time the last two seasons between the AHL, WHL, as well as some time with Team Canada at the WJC:
There are a few key items to take away from these numbers. When Zary stepped onto the scene in Stockton during the WHL delay last season, he fit in like a glove. Seven points in nine games set him apart from the rest of the young prospects.
He continued to put up big numbers in Kamloops where he was the captain last season—no surprise there after showing he could score on the professional level.
What really hurt his numbers this past season was two-fold. First, he broke his ankle during a rookie game to start the season and missed approximately eight weeks before rejoining the Heat. Once he did, he played at the centre position and struggled to adjust while coming back from an injury.
Secondly, he was playing most of his time in the bottom-six as a centreman which took him away from the top scorers on the team. That alone is going to make things a bit harder for the young man. It’s not a justification for low numbers, but it’s important to distinguish that Zary had a number of factors working against him.
Zary’s next steps
Next season is extremely important for Zary, which comes as no surprise to say to anyone. He finished his season in Stockton on a high note, getting his name on the scoresheet a bit more and contributing in the playoffs. His confidence in the back half of the season was also extremely noticeable.
In just one year Zary has gone from the crown jewel of the prospect system, to almost fighting for his place—which is simply extra motivation. With some prospects looking to make the jump to the NHL roster next season, it opens the door for Zary to take over with the AHL team.
If Zary can set himself apart from the crowd, or just simply have a productive season, I think he will be right back on track. The concern will start to rise if Zary’s health comes into question or he’s unable to stick at centre. Either situation just screams Sam Bennett to me, and that is not what the Flames would be looking for.
All that being said, it’s far too early to panic on Zary and even more to give up on him.