Due to the Canadian Hockey League delaying the 2020-21 seasons for the Western Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League, some teenagers have been able to get a taste of pro hockey. If you’re not familiar, the NHL and CHL have an agreement in place in which any players under the age of 20 are unable to play in the American Hockey League. Due to the ongoing pandemic and delayed seasons some players were able to play for their NHL affiliate AHL team.
This includes the Calgary Flames 2020 first-round pick Connor Zary who skated with the Stockton Heat after Flames camp and got into nine games. Back in October, Flames management kept fans eagerly waiting to hear who the team’s newest blue-chip prospect would be as they traded down twice from 19th to 22nd and then to 24th. After picking up two draft picks the Flames would then select the Saskatoon native.
Zary looked confident during Calgary’s training camp and in both intrasquad games before he was assigned to Stockton’s practice group who were awaiting their season schedule. He was given big minutes right out of the gate and he ran with the opportunity.
Zary Steps Right In
In his debut with the team, Zary was put on the team’s top line with Matthew Phillips and Adam Ruzicka. Right away he looked more than capable of playing at the pro level as he could keep up with his linemates and was finding the confidence to make plays. After a tough start to the season for the whole team, the top line found some chemistry as the trio combined for 33 points in nine games.
Zary collected his first assist in the AHL in his third game which came against the Toronto Marlies. On a rebound in front, he grabbed the puck and skated out from the corner and made a quick pass to the point for Colton Poolman who passed to across to eventual goal-scorer Zac Leslie. He showed good patience with the puck and waited until he found the open man in Poolman.
His first primary assist came during the team’s 8-1 drubbing of the Marlies. After retrieving the puck he skated from the blue line down the boards drawing in three defenders and found Mark Simpson sitting all alone in front of the net who easily one-timed it to the back of the net. It was one of a few passes that finally connected where Zary’s vision of the ice was becoming more noticeable.
3 Point Night Versus Belleville
Zary’s most impressive outing came in a 4-1 win over the Belleville Senators where he scored two goals and added an assist. His first career AHL goal came off of a rush into the zone when Ruzicka dropped the puck back and he ripped it short side past Filip Gustavsson. He is no stranger to scoring goals as he tucked 38 during the 2019-20 WHL season and is very good with placing his shots.
Zary’s second goal of the night may have been the goal of the night across the AHL. Just over three minutes after his first pro goal he scored his second of his career on a close play in front of the net. It came on a quick pass from Ruzicka to the far side in which Zary took on his backhand and reach his stick around Gustavsson to tuck it in the back of the net.
Stockton’s top line combined for eight points in the game as Zary added a secondary assist in the third period. He stripped a Senators player of the puck at the blue line and skated towards the net connecting with Phillips on a cross-crease pass and Ruzicka would bury the rebound. He finished his final four games with a goal and an assist before he had to make his way back to Kamloops.
Return to Play in Kamloops
The WHL’s B.C. division finally sorted out a start date and schedule and teams will begin play on March 26th. While abbreviated it will be Zary’s fourth season with the Blazers and he will be relied upon heavily by the team. Kamloops was leading their division by 14 points during the 2019-20 season when all sports came to a grinding halt due to coronavirus.
Zary will be a big part of Kamloops’ offence as they have lost three of their top five scorers from last season due to players ageing out. He has accumulated 182 points in 188 WHL contests and will be looking to finish his career at a point per game pace or better. The Blazers’ first game comes Friday, March 26th at home against the Vancouver Giants.
An Encouraging Debut
Zary had a very encouraging start to his professional career as he was given top-line minutes and excelled while looking very comfortable in his role. He will turn 20 in September and will be eligible to play for Stockton full-time. Next season he could very well be back on that same top line with Phillips and Ruzicka which was clicking at an elite rate.
At just nine games it’s a very small sample size but it’s encouraging to see that Zary was able to step into a big role in professional hockey. If the Blazers can have another strong campaign and lengthy playoff run it will be beneficial to his development and continuing to prepare to make the jump full-time to the pros. It’s a welcome sight early on as the Flames continue looking to add more depth on forward. A strong season in the AHL could warrant a look in the NHL as early as next season.