The 2022-23 hockey season is underway for the Calgary Flames organization. Head coach Darryl Sutter shared his thoughts a few times about how it was a strong camp for many of their prospects. Initially, there was cause for concern because some prospects outperformed the NHL players who would make the team. Fortunately, the underwhelming training camp from many of the Flames hasn’t transferred to the regular season. But those prospects should provide a boost of confidence in the young crop of players who will be coming up next.
Amongst the standouts from training camp was Connor Zary, the team’s 2020 first-round pick (24th overall). Sutter was asked about Zary and how he looks this season saying, “Connor Zary [is] a perfect example of why you feel the American League is so important in terms of…he looks like a guy who’s really made some significant strides from one year to the next.” He looked like a different player in training camp than he did last season, putting in the time and making significant strides now that he’s healthy. Sutter responded with, “I don’t think he had a very good first year because of the injuries. So, I think, in a lot of ways, he’s kicked it in now.”
Zary will be one to watch this season and beyond as it is important he makes an impact.
Key for Flames to Hit on First-Round Picks
A player’s first year as a pro is often difficult. Zary collected just 13 goals and 25 points last season in the AHL, while another top prospect, Jakob Pelletier, scored 27 goals and 62 points. But proper development is the reason why most players don’t start their pro careers in the NHL against the best.
“I think by being out last year and seeing that league and playing the little that he did, give him credit because he put the work in.” Sutter is mostly right, except Zary played 53 games. That’s not a little amount. But any missed time during a player’s development can throw them off track.
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This season, the Flames only have one of their first-round picks on the roster. That’s Backlund who was drafted in 2007. Since they’ve either missed the mark with their picks or the players have moved on, the most recent first-rounders will have to become success stories for the team to stay at the top of the league. Not only Zary but Pelletier and Matthew Coronato as well.
Zary Part of Flames’ Next Crop of Talent Coming Up
Sutter also said of Zary, “He knew he had to become a better skater, he had to get stronger, all that, and you could see that percentage improvement already. So, take the next part of it this year.” Don’t expect to see Zary in the NHL this season at this stage of his development. A few forwards will get the call-up first, even if Zary has a stellar campaign.
The Flames are contenders and don’t need to rush their talent. They didn’t even keep Pelletier around after a solid 2021-22 season. Zary will likely need another full season in the AHL to get accustomed to the top-six at the pro level and get back to the offensive player he is. Ideally, with an already deep lineup, the Flames will want to see him become a near-point-per-game player in the AHL and round out his game before he makes the jump.
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However, he will be key to the team’s future. Given his draft status, he is expected to become a top-six centre for the Flames. Nazem Kadri will likely be with the team for six seasons after this one, but who knows how time will impact his game. The organization may need a top-six centre before then. Backlund doesn’t have many years left as the 33-year-old has already fallen off offensively and finds himself in the third-line centre role this season. The future is also uncertain for Elias Lindholm, the team’s number-one centre. He has just one year remaining on his deal after this season and is due for a huge pay increase.
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Zary is off to a strong start with the Calgary Wranglers. That’s a good sign as he should only get better with time. There’s a lot of optimism that he will have a much better season in 2022-23 and make his way to the Flames soon enough.