After being drafted 24th overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Calgary Flames fans had high hopes for Connor Zary. Coming off of an impressive 38-goal, 86-point season in the Western Hockey League with the Kamloops Blazers, he was described as a very strong two-way player who has a very high hockey IQ. While he wasn’t the most skilled prospect in his draft class, he was a player that projected to be a top-six forward at the NHL level in future years.
Excitement from the Flames’ fanbase only continued after Zary was able to get in nine games with the Stockton Heat in the American Hockey League (AHL) the following season and put up a very impressive three goals and seven points. That brief showing had many in the belief that he was set to have a big year in 2021-22, regardless of whether it came in the AHL or NHL. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case.
Zary’s 2021-22 Struggles
Zary’s 2021-22 season got off to a bad start before it even began, as a broken ankle suffered in a rookie game forced him to miss roughly eight weeks. This meant that as soon as he joined the Heat, he was already playing catchup against opponents who were at full speed.
That played a serious impact on Zary, who really struggled in the early goings of the season. He was able to pick things up over the second half, but by the time his year came to an end, he had just 13 goals and 25 points in 53 games, very disappointing totals given the expectations he had entering the season. His lack of production followed him into the playoffs as well, as he managed just a goal and two points in 13 outings.
Aside from his injury, another reason for Zary’s struggles seemed to be the fact that he was playing down the middle of the ice. Though drafted as a centerman, he had spent plenty of time playing the wing as well and seemed to be able to better create offense when doing so. However, the Heat chose to use him down the middle last season, often in a bottom-six role. This meant not only having the added responsibilities defensively that come with being a centerman but also failing to have top-tier talents, such as Jakob Pelletier and Matthew Phillips, on his wings.
As we all know, recency bias is a big thing when it comes to sports, and that certainly applies to how Zary is viewed at this point in time. After entering the season as one of, if not the top prospects in the entire organization, fans have instead shifted their focus to individuals such as Pelletier and Matthew Coronato.
Zary Needs to Break Out in 2022-23
Though Zary has certainly shifted down the rankings list due to his disappointing season, there is still an opportunity for him to develop into the player many had hoped for on his draft day. It is important to note that he has not even had his 21st birthday yet, meaning he still has a lot of untapped potential.
The hope is that some of that untapped potential will show itself this upcoming season. It is pretty well a foregone conclusion that he will begin the season with the Calgary Wranglers, the Flames’ relocated AHL team. He will likely receive an even bigger opportunity in his second campaign to prove that he can produce, and with his skill level, one would imagine he will be able to. Of course, he will also need to do everything in his power to stay healthy, as another injury would once again put him behind the ball.
Given how strong the Flames roster is entering the 2022-23 season, it doesn’t seem likely that Zary will see any NHL time this coming season. Injuries could, of course, change that, but the expectation at this time is that he will spend another full season in the AHL. If he is able to up his totals, however, he will give himself a great chance to crack the Flames’ opening night roster for the 2023-24 campaign. Don’t give up on him just yet.