CalgaryFlames.com takes a closer look at some of our young prospects – today, it’s Connor Zary.
Pay no attention to the accomplishments.
It’s early days, still.
Ignore the World Junior silver medal, the WHL First All-Star Team nod and the CHL Top Prospects game invite.
Lend no mind to the point-per-game clip over 203 WHL contests or the plus-30 rating in his 2019-20 season that led to a first-round selection by the Flames. Forget about his seven points in nine AHL games as a 19-year-old.
Ask Connor Zary and he’ll tell you himself, he’s still looking to show what he can do.
“The pressure is always there no matter when you were drafted, what round,” said Zary. “It’s more on me. There’s always going to be someone watching and it’s all about what I put on the ice. I haven’t proved anything yet. Every single day, every year, there’s always something to prove.”
A year ago, Calgary plucked the Saskatoon native with the 24th-overall pick. It didn’t take long for him to display why, figuring into Team Canada’s lineup at the World Junior Championship while finishing the tournament a plus-4 before going on to join the Stockton Heat at the start of the season before the WHL’s return to play.
It was his first stint in the professional game that will raise eyebrows, the 6-foot forward factoring into Stockton’s most lethal line while skating alongside centre Adam Ruzicka and right wing Matthew Phillips, a pair of players who earned NHL ice time in 2021.
Video: Scoring lovely goals – it’s what he does
At the end of Zary’s nine-game run with the Heat, the trio had accounted for a combined 33 points and 14 goals while amassing an active seven-game win streak when the rookie was returned to juniors.
“We were great,” said Zary of his linemates. “We were feeding off each other. Things were going smoothly. Those guys are unbelievable players. (Ruzicka) is a big guy, great hands and great at finishing. (Phillips) always seems to have a magnet on the puck and is making plays. When you can skate beside those guys, it lets you raise to their level, play with them and learn a lot.”
The 2021 season brought the unexpected – playing without fans, competing in Calgary while skating for Stockton – but that experience at the AHL level has already paid dividends. By the time Zary returned to Kamloops, he’d seen what it takes to excel at the next level while playing beside two top prospects in the Flames pipeline.
It was a measuring stick, but it was also a distance marker for how far he had to go to reach his destination.
Back with the Blazers, he enjoyed his best statistical season to date at 1.6 points per game and a plus-9 in just 15 games. ‘That little season,’ as he refers to it, also came with a new letter sewn to his chest.
“(Being named captain) was special,” he said. “To have that honour, to be a leader and be recognized for that, was special. It was a shortened season but it still means the same. The amount of accountability and respect that comes with wearing it was pretty cool. You see some of the names who have come through Kamloops like Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Scott Niedermayer and Mark Recchi, all of the greats; it’s pretty cool to have been able to put on that jersey for the last four years and be captain last year.”
Despite his young age, Zary is ready to close the door on his impressive junior career. It’s the competitor in him that allows him to look ahead to what’s next and make that jump back into the professional ranks, a less-daunting task than it may have seemed even a year ago with his strong showing on the farm.
He’ll offer up that he’s just getting started, but that’s a challenge that he’s embracing and ready to conquer one step at a time.
“(My nine games in Stockton) were huge,” said Zary. “It was a weird year, but getting those nine games in and getting up to pace in that game, seeing day-to-day life, feeling out practice, seeing the travel and getting to know guys and get comfortable within the organization, it meant a lot to be on the ice, be comfortable and excel at that level.
“There’s still a lot of work to put in and areas to improve, but if you don’t come in with the mindset that you want to make the best team possible and be on the big club, you’re coming in with the wrong attitude. It’s what you want to push for every time you’re on the ice.”