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Flames' Zary finds a home on the wing

Connor Zary Calgary Flames Connor Zary - The Canadian Press

A subtle, under-the-radar decision Calgary Flames management made last season in the development of one of the team’s top prospects is paying major dividends this year.

Partway through 2022-23, the team had 2020 first-round pick Connor Zary, then with the American Hockey League’s Calgary Wranglers, move from centre to left wing.

Zary, who has 10 points in 12 games as an NHL rookie this season, was drafted as a centre from the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers. He played some wing with the Wranglers intermittently, but the Flames wanted him to move to the left side on a more permanent basis, given the organization’s depth down the middle.

“Where is he best positioned to play in the NHL?” Flames assistant general manager Brad Pascall, who runs the Wranglers, explained of the team’s thought process. “We said, ‘He’s played X number of games at centre. Let’s move him on the wing. I think we saw that he excelled with that.”

Zary started this season as a left winger with the Wranglers and had 10 points in six games prior to getting called up. The 22-year-old said the position switch has been good for his overall development and versatility.

“I played centre for probably half the games in the American League and left wing for half the games,” Zary said. “For me to have that in my tool belt, no matter what, is important, but I think being able to play the left wing has allowed me a lot of opportunities to play with a lot of pace and play a game I want to play. It’s been good. I’ve really enjoyed playing wing so far.”

Flames assistant coach Marc Savard, who played 807 games in the NHL as a centre, pointed out some of the more nuanced differences in the positions.

“It’s a transition in the sense that you’ve got to get your legs going,” Savard said. “As a centre, you’re on the move constantly. As a winger, you’ve got a spot. You’ve got to start. You’ve got to stop. There’s a little more effort [as a centre] in that sense…when you’re in the middle, you can move both ways. When you’re a winger, depending on the wing, you’re forced to move one way.”

Despite Zary’s talent, there was an adjustment process in switching positions beyond those nuances. 

“It’s a lot different, especially with the systems we’ve implemented this year,” he said. “[The biggest adjustment] has been trying to keep my speed and make plays on the wall. I think it’s important, especially at this level, that you make that first play off the wall, because if you turn it over, that’s an extra 20 seconds in your [defensive] zone where you don’t want to be.” 

Wranglers assistant coach Don Nachbaur, who played more than 200 games at the NHL level himself as a centre, worked with Zary last season in adapting his game to the new role.

“He likes to handle pucks and he had to learn to work without the puck and [about] getting open as a winger,” Nachbaur explained. “Whereas as a centre, he had the puck more, but he was real smart in reading holes and reading openings…he’s got no fear. He’ll take on a hit to make a play.”

Nachbaur told Zary to limit the number of dekes he attempted when he had the puck on his stick in preparation for having far less time to make those plays at the next level. He has already seen his protege use those lessons against NHL competition.

“You’re seeing him do that in Calgary [with the Flames] – quicker plays, not stickhandling as much,” he said.

Zary has impressed in his young career so far. Since his callup on Oct. 31, he’s second among all rookies in scoring, trailing only Connor Bedard, despite being 20th in ice time per game.

He’s added a jolt to a Flames squad (9-10-3, 21 points) that now occupies the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference and is ninth in the league in points percentage in November.

“He’s brought a lot to the hockey club, and he’s been rewarded with some trust from the coach,” Savard said. “A guy that’s going to make plays and control the puck…he sees the ice great. We’ve been working a lot on attacking the weak-side d off the rush, so that gets him off the wall and gets him moving. He’s able to make those high-danger skill plays. It’s added to our offence.”

Savard also sees a bit of himself in Zary.

“I was the same way in that I wasn’t the fastest guy in the league, but he’s able to make up with it with his smarts,” Savard said.

Zary is quick to credit veteran centre Nazem Kadri for his mentorship and guidance on and off the ice as he adjusts to life in the NHL. 

“Naz being an all-star…to play with guys like that, it makes it a lot easier,” he said. “Little tidbits on the bench, telling me little things.”

The two have played together almost every five-on-five shift so far and have recently formed an effective trio with fellow rookie Martin Pospisil. In nearly 70 minutes at five-on-five together as a line, Zary, Kadri, and Pospisil have been on the ice for four goals for and just one against while amassing more than 60 per cent of on-ice scoring chances.

Kadri has embraced the mentorship role, beaming when his linemates’ progress is brought up and emphasizing how proud he is of them.

“It’s nice to play with some skilled players,” Kadri said.

Despite that early success, however, he’s imploring his young wingers to not get complacent.

“It’s easy when things are going well to let off the gas a little bit because you’re young and raw and you think everything’s going to come easily if it already has,” Kadri said. “Really what I try to tell them is to prepare them every single period, every single game, to surpass what we did the night before. That’s key in order to be a great player and great professional.”