NEED FOR SPEED: How Flames rookie Connor Zary readied for his NHL breakthrough

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For the Saddledome crowd, it was the sort of highlight they’ve already come to expect from Connor Zary, another glimpse of why they’re oh-so-excited about his future.

For Zary’s skating coaches, it was proof of all his progress to this point.

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This past weekend, with the Calgary Flames clinging to a one-goal lead against a starry opponent, the rookie winger collected a loose puck inside his own blue line and headed for enemy territory.

For the next 100-plus feet of ice, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brandon Hagel was in his back pocket, pestering and pressuring but always a step behind.

The 22-year-old Zary capped that rush — and essentially sealed the victory — with a short-side snipe against former Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, and that wasn’t even the most impressive part.

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This sequence was evidence of Zary’s tireless work to improve his skating, an element of his game that some worried would limit his effectiveness at the NHL level or perhaps even prevent him from getting there.

“I’ve heard that my whole life — that I won’t be fast enough, that I’m going to have to catch up, that my skating is not good enough,” Zary said. “I think you take that to heart and it’s something you can always work on and get better with. I think, for me, it’s something that even in the next 10 summers, I can keep working on it and keep getting better and keep improving my pace and the little details and habits within my skating that are going to make me a better player.”

Zary is off to a blistering start to his big-league career. An immediate difference-maker for the Flames, the second-line winger is even earning some mention in the Calder Trophy conversation.

Heading into Thursday’s late date against the Ducks in Anaheim, Zary had notched seven goals and nine assists in 22 outings since being called up at the end of October. He has averaged 0.73 points per game, second to only Connor Bedard among NHL newbies in full-time roles.

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He wouldn’t be a darkhorse in the rookie-of-the-year race if he hadn’t picked up his pace.

As Danielle Fujita, the Flames’ full-time skating coach, praised: “He has been so committed to it.”

Which is why, when he buried a crucial insurance goal on that eye-opening rush against the Lightning, Fujita was beaming with pride.

Which is why Jordan Trach — who is Zary’s longtime skating and skills instructor in his hometown of Saskatoon and describes the Flames’ sudden standout as “almost like a little brother to me,” — also was smiling wide as he watched the replays Saturday night.

“I jump out of my seat, just like probably his parents would,” Fujita said. “Because I feel so invested in these kids. You’re just so excited for them and so happy for them. And at the same time, you kind of sit back and think, ‘Of course he did. Of course he did that.’ It’s almost a no-brainer, because this is Connor and this is his ability, this is what he can do. I’ve never had any doubt in that kid.”

Some did.

While Zary piled up points for the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers and continued to produce in his two full campaigns in the minors, the scouts always whispered about his foot-speed.

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Would it hold him back?

Apparently not. He refused to let that happen.

“To be honest with you, I think Connor’s lack of skating ability at a young age allowed him to become the player he is,” said Trach, who first coached Zary as a novice-aged spring-leaguer in Saskatoon. “Because a lot of players that were good skaters at a young age, they didn’t have to think the game, right? They’d just simply out-skate everyone, get behind the defencemen, walk in, get their shot and they’d score.

“Connor has found opportunities and created opportunities offensively because he had to use his brain. He knew that he couldn’t beat people with just his pure skating ability. He always had to find quiet areas. He had to find spots where pucks were going to go, not where they are, et cetera.”

Still, as he climbed the ranks, Zary realized that he needed more burst, needed a higher gear, needed to be able to separate himself from would-be defenders.

Part of the challenge was to add muscle mass, a familiar quest for any aspiring NHLer in their late-teens or early 20s, but he also embraced tweaks to the mechanics of his stride.

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“Strength and power go hand-in-hand,” Fujita explained. “For Connor, it was a combination of spending time on his technique and efficiency — because he was lacking on both — and then spending time in the gym and getting that strength built up.

“Because these young men, if they don’t have the power and the strength, there’s not much more they can do with the technique. They’re still going to show up slow. Technically, they’re going to be really good but they’re still going to be slow because they don’t have what they need from the gym. So they go hand-in-hand.

“With Connor, once those started to come together, that’s when we started to notice the change. And now you’re seeing it out there. It’s pretty cool.”

Zary deserves a whole heap of credit for that because this is not necessarily an easy fix. There is a long list of once-promising prospects who didn’t pan out because of what some like to call “heavy boots.”

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While Zary never will be described as a burner, he’s now proving highway-ready, able to accelerate and cruise at a fast enough clip to capitalize on his other gifts — high hockey IQ, impressive vision, gobs of confidence in his offensive abilities and a desire to have the puck on his stick in the big moments.

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“It’s that time that I work on it in the summer, on those skating details, and the time in the gym that has allowed me to play at this level,” he agreed after a recent practice.

Connor Zary
Connor Zary of the Calgary Flames looks for an opening against the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena on November 25, 2023. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Zary was a first-round selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, when the picking was delayed until October and held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The following summer, his first in the Flames’ pipeline, he moved to Calgary so he could train with Fujita and the team strength staff.

“Danielle is a beam of light,” he said. “Even sometimes at 7 a.m. in the summers when you come to the rink and you’re tired and miserable, she just makes it fun. Early mornings, she’ll throw the music on in the rink and make it fun.”

If Zary is back home in Saskatoon, he books one-on-one sessions with Trach and his cohort Blake Tatchell, and is a regular when they’re running drills for the local pro group. This past off-season, in particular, Trach noticed, “any opportunity there was to work on his skating, he was attending.”

“The game is 90% how fast you can play it now, right?” Zary reasoned. “So I think it’s something you can always improve on and for me, it’s something I have always looked to improve on. I know I’m not going to be the fastest guy. I’m not going to go out there and be like (Connor) McDavid and burn guys one-on-one every game.

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“But I think if you can play at a high pace and then just be smart with it and know when to move into the right positions and save yourself and be smart about it that way, I think that’s how you can kind of work with it.

“Like I said, not every guy is going to have the pace like a McDavid, like a (Nathan) MacKinnon, so you just try to take as much as you can.”

He’s now taking the Saddledome by storm.

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That sequence against the Lightning was just another example of it.

“That goal, I think it’s a good picture of why he’s had success for us,” Flames head coach Ryan Huska said. “He’s using his body the right way to position himself properly and he has great composure with the puck.”

“That’s a strength component, too, where he’s now able to not only keep his feet moving, but fight off a check while he’s trying to take the puck to the net,” Trach added. “So that particular play almost summarizes where he had to improve and where he has improved.”

“That was really good because he’s not known for that aspect of his game,” echoed Fujita, who has been on staff as the Flames skating guru since 2018. “Back when he was drafted, his smarts and the quickness of his thinking was way ahead of his feet.

“Now that he’s put in time in the gym and on the ice, now they’re there. I’ll tell you, and he will admit, he still has work to do with me. He still has goals to reach and things to accomplish, but he is well on his way. He’s making a career in the NHL. Now, it’s my job to work with him to sustain that career.”

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