2020 NHL Entry Draft Prospect Profile: Connor Zary

What NHL team wouldn’t want a reliable all-situations center?

Name: Connor Zary

Team: Kamloops Blazers (WHL)

Position: Center

Stats: 57 games played, 38 goals, 48 assists, 86 points, 51 PIMs, +30 plus/minus rating

NHL Central Scouting ranking: 15th (North American Skaters)

Comparable NHL player: Travis Zajac / Tyler Bozak

Link to Zary’s Elite Prospects page

Describing a player as a “jack of all trades, but master of none” is such a tired cliché  at this point that I would love to put it out to pasture once and for all. And yet, sometimes it just represents a player so perfectly that you can’t help but use it.

Enter Kamloops Blazers center Connor Zary.

I don’t think I’ve heard or read a single scathing scouting critique of Zary all season, and the reason is because there just isn’t a lot to critique about his game. The de facto number one center on the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers is an incredibly reliable, all-situations, 200-foot player, and he’s impressively consistent on a shift-by-shift basis as well. Because of his versatility, work ethic and track record to this point, he’s one of the few players at the top of this draft class who projects easily as someone who can stay at center moving forward long-term.

Offensively, he can be dangerous from pretty much everywhere: on the rush, in the cycle, from the wall, in front of the net, and so on. He’s reasonably skilled as both a shooter and a playmaker, and has the hockey sense to think the play one step ahead of his competition much of the time. His hands are high-end, allowing him to dangle the puck around defenders to maintain possession.

Defensively, he’s solid. He’s probably not a guy who will ever earn any votes for the Selke Trophy, but coaches will know that they can throw him on the ice for a penalty kill or to defend a lead late in the game and he’ll usually get the job done.

However, if you were to pick one area where Zary could be considered a “master” it would have to be a hard-to-define mental makeup that he possesses. To call it “composure” or “competitiveness” gets close, but doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head.

For an idea of what I’m talking about, fast forward to last spring and the tail end of the 2018-19 WHL season. Zary and his Blazers team were sitting outside of a playoff spot, a hair’s width away from being mathematically eliminated. Miraculously, they staged one of the best playoff drives in league history, going 5-0-1 in their final six games to force a one-game tiebreaker with their biggest rivals, the Kelowna Rockets, to nab the final Wild Card spot. They then proceeded to wallop Kelowna 5-1 in the tiebreaker, completing their improbable run to secure a berth in the postseason.

Zary was absolutely lights-out during that run. He had 10 points in the final six regular-season games, and then potted a goal and a helper in the tiebreaker. But it was how Zary scored those points that will cement his place in the annals of Blazers franchise history.

He scored two goals, including the game-winner, on March 12. On March 15th he had the primary assist at 13:39 of the third period to cut a deficit to 4-3, and then scored the game-tying goal with 56 seconds left to force overtime. On March 16 he had the game-tying primary assist at 14:54 of the third, then single-handedly scored the game-winning goal while shorthanded with 2:45 remaining. And then, finally, in the tiebreaker on March 19th, he scored another shorthanded goal in the third period to open a 3-1 lead over Kelowna, which was the dagger that broke the Rockets, who completely fell apart immediately after.

Kamloops got bounced in the opening round of the playoffs, but that didn’t slow down Zary’s momentum, as he promptly joined Hockey Canada at the IIHF U18s, where he produced seven points in seven games.

Talk about coming through in the clutch.

The closest thing that could be considered a real knock on Zary would be his skating, which isn’t quite as dynamic or powerful as you’d like to see. His top gear is fine and he’s decently agile when he’s in full flight, but it takes him a while to get up to speed because his stride is a little hunched over and he doesn’t get great extension in his legs. He can be a little slow to adjust to quick changes in the flow of play, and he’s not very elusive when trying to escape tight traffic with his first few steps.

Although his point totals this past season look good at first glance, he was in his third season in the WHL, so he had an extra year of high-level development compared to most of his peers (a late birthday, he missed the 2019 draft by 10 days). The Blazers weren’t exactly an offensive powerhouse, but they had a deep veteran core that was able to spread out their scoring, especially on the power play, where Zary picked up 38 of his 86 points. Additionally, the B.C. Division was a mess, so Kamloops had the fortune of beating up weaker teams in a significant chunk of their games. All of this is to say that you probably shouldn’t expect Zary to be more than a 50-60 point scorer at the peak of his NHL career.

Where Zary will go in the draft is certainly an interesting question. He’s the type of guy that will fit into any NHL organization, and teams will know that they won’t have to devote a lot of time and resources into developing him, which is a nice perk. As far as “safe” picks go, there are few in this draft class as safe as Zary. And, as mentioned earlier, there aren’t a lot of true centers this year.

For the Dallas Stars specifically, Zary will be a name to watch closely. If he’s on the board whenever the Stars pick in the first round, he’d easily be one of the best players still available. He’s similar in a lot of ways to Ty Dellandrea (whom the Stars love), and you can’t discount the organization’s ties to the Blazers and all the insider information that comes with that (Tom Gaglardi owns both teams, and Dallas picked two Kamloops players within the past three drafts). He’ll be a guy that the Dallas scouts know very well, maybe more so than anyone else at the top of the class.

He wouldn’t be the dynamic offensive forward that the Stars need in their system, but if one of those isn’t available without reaching, the team could sure do a lot worse than Zary.