The WHL 2020’s crop of draft eligible talent from the WHL doesn’t measure up to 2019’s extraordinarily deep class– headlined by the foursome of Bowen Byram (Colorado), Kirby Dach (Blackhawks), Dylan Cozens (Sabres), and Peyton Krebs (Golden Knights)– but that isn’t to say that this year’s draft won’t contain its share of future NHL talent from the West. Braden Schneider and Kaiden Guhle, a pair of defencemen featured at 15th and 19th respectively on Bob Mckenzie’s preseason list, are probably the best known duo, but centreman Connor Zary could be the real gem of the group.
A 6’0″ left-shot forward, Zary managed 67 points in 63 games for Kamloops as a 17 year old in 2018-19– the tenth highest rate of scoring for a draft-minus-one forward in the WHL since 1996. That list is dominated by older players like Zary (who is just ten days away from being eligible in 2019); eight of the ten players are what we consider “late birthdays,” celebrating their 18th birthday on or before December 31 of their draft season.
Zary finds himself 19th on Colin Cudmore’s consolidated ranking with a wide expected range of anywhere from 15th to 29th overall. Zary was ranked 22nd by hockeyprospect.com, 28th by ISS Hockey, 50th by FutureConsiderations, and 8th by McKeen’s. A well-rounded centre, Zary doesn’t have a particular standout skill. His overall profile is about as all-around as they come, with no notable weaknesses. Zary is a capable skater (above-average, but not a massive speedster), a talented puckhandler with tons of ability in one-on-one situations, and impressive dual-threat capacity as both a scorer and a distributor.
Let’s dive into his game.
Zary isn’t an overly dynamic skater, but he gets around just fine with a long, powerful stride. His first steps are a major strength– he has separation speed through the neutral zone, allowing him to create space for himself off the rush. Look at the space he creates between himself and the Finnish backcheck here:
Zary moves his feet quickly, generating power on each stride with deep knee bend and full extension of the leg and ankle. Mechanically, his stride is very clean, suggesting that he could turn it into an area of particular strength with increased leg strength. It doesn’t stand out at the WHL level at this point, but it very well could in the future– potentially even in comparison to NHLers.
As an offensive threat, Zary’s profile is founded upon smooth, effective, not always flashy actions. He operates extremely well around the net, using his edges and hands to work the puck into scoring positions. I really like this play as a demonstration of that:
Zary beats a defender to a loose puck, throws the puck on net, immediately follows it up, grabs the rebound, and scores on the wraparound. There’s no lights-out display of high-end talent, but Zary dogs the puck and uses his edges to make a hard move to the net on the finish.
This ability around the crease is a valuable asset on the man advantage, where Zary’s tendency to channel pucks into the slot makes him an excellent option to play down low on the powerplay.
This particular move is a favourite of Zary’s– and mine. It’s an excellent way to get the puck right to the crease, and has proven effective at a variety of levels. He attempted the same play during the recent CHL-Russia series:
Zary tries the spinorama in front of Miftakhov pic.twitter.com/l4X4lsYzlL
— 🤸🏻♀️Lauren Kelly🏌🏻♀️ (@laurkelly24) November 14, 2019
One could certainly argue that this type of move wouldn’t work nearly as frequently at the NHL level, where defenders would be better positions and more inclined to put Zary in the ground as soon as he turns his back to them, but I like to focus more on the attributes it takes to pull that move off. The edges, hands, and coordination to take the puck to the crease in that fashion aren’t common at the junior level. Skill adapts: if Zary can’t make that move against NHL defenders, he’ll put those traits to use in other ways to create offence.
Zary is an intelligent attacker with excellent instincts. We saw a glimpse of that with those last two clips– he has the capacity to quickly evaluate his options and recognize when the penalty killers are giving him the space to make that move. On a more general level, Zary is consistently able to find soft areas in the offensive zone from which to facilitate.
Zary enters the corner to support his teammates, but quickly realizes that Brayden Tracey has a lane to the net with the puck. He curls back and heads to the back post, where he receives a tap-in feed from Tracey.
The 18 year old is able to maintain and extend possessions through his play around the net and in the corners, an area where Zary is surprisingly proficient for a 6’0″ player. Below, Zary (with some help from a linemmate) possesses the puck in the corner for a good 25 seconds, using his edges to evade the defender and shield the puck.
Holding the puck in the corner for such a prolonged period doesn’t directly create offence, but it tires out defences and increases the likelihood of a defensive slip-up later on in the shift. It’s subtle, but there’s value there.
Zary has an excellent set of hands, giving him the tools to dangle his way into the slot for high-danger opportunities. He has an impressive record in one-on-one situations: Zary was 3-for-4 on shootout attempts last season, with an impressive history on breakaway opportunities as well. His hands aren’t as quick as those of Antonio Stranges or Alexis Lafreniere, but he’s an incredibly deceptive puckhandler with a proven ability to make goaltenders and defenders bite. This is a shootout attempt of Zary’s from last year (Kamloops has yet to go to a shootout this season):
Here he is on a breakaway. This is a better display of his versatility as a puckhandler– he doesn’t get as much control over the angle of his approach, there are more things (backcheckers) to cloud his mind, and his options are somewhat limited.
In both of clips, Zary makes the finish look easy. Neither play is a crazy Datsyuk-esque dangle, but the goaltender finds himself sprawled out hopelessly nonetheless. It’s a simple formula– sell the goalie on the first fake; bury the puck into the open twine– but it’s one that has been very successful for him thus far in his WHL career.
Zary’s hands are similarly effective in open ice:
Connor Zary: good at hockey pic.twitter.com/0Vy9ECPie4
— Sam (@DraftLook) November 25, 2019
People tend to assume that smaller players, like the 6’0″ Zary, prefer to play around the perimeter of the ice, but that isn’t Zary’s game. He loves to attack high danger areas, using his puck skills, creativity, mobility, and intelligence to do so.
And when he isn’t crashing the slot himself, Zary can probably be found playing the puck into that area for a teammate. I don’t want to call Zary’s playmaking an underrated aspect of his game (he had 46 assists last year and is on pace for 55 in ’19-20), but his puck skills tend to be the more eye-catching piece of his toolbox. He frequently puts his intelligence on display as a distributor, moving the puck into space for his teammates to skate onto.
There’s a lot to like about the play above. Zary creates the passing lane into the slot by stopping up, waits for his teammate to cut into the inside, and lays a hard pass into the slot for his teammate to direct towards the net (the pass is just inches too far ahead, but that isn’t the point here). When Zary stops up and looks to the middle (signalling his intent to make the play he ultimately does), the play isn’t nearly as developed as it is when Zary actually makes the pass:
Zary recognizes the open slot and anticipates that his teammate will go to the net (a habit coached into players right from the beginning of their minor hockey careers). It’s an excellent representation of the multi-dimensionality of his game; he isn’t a one track player that buries his head and goes straight to the net every possession. He has the creativity and intelligence to vary his attacks, create space offensively, and use the extent of his tools.
All in all, there’s plenty to like about Zary’s game. When evaluators see a player with the well-roundedness of Zary, they tend to assume that he lacks high-end skill in any particular area. That couldn’t be further from the case: Zary is an excellent puckhandler, a deft playmaker, and a talented scorer. Nothing about his profile in those three areas is average. He’s off to an exceptional start to 2019-20, averaging more than one and a half points per game and sitting just one point off the WHL scoring lead. His current rate of scoring is the 7th highest from a draft year WHLer since 1996; putting him on a similar level to Evander Kane and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Everything about Zary’s game suggests a lengthy future as a top-nine centre. He won’t be a team’s premier offensive threat, but he’s the type of player who can head up a second line on a successful team. It’s a deep draft, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Zary should contend for a top 15 selection this year
Photo Credits – Allen Douglas / Kamloops Blazers