Blazers centre aims to cap breakthrough season at NHL Draft
Tuesday's NHL entry draft will be a hat trick of a different sort for Kamloops Blazers centre Connor Zary and other projected firstround picks.
Due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, the draft will be held via video conferencing. With that, the tradition of a player coming to the stage and pulling on his new club's sweater while flanked by various team staff is on hold. In its place, the NHL is sending players expected to go in that opening round — like Zary — baseball caps from all 31 teams.
“They want you to have something to throw on when you get drafted,” said Zary, who confirmed Saturday morning the big box of hats had arrived at his family's home in Saskatoon. “What do you do with the other 30 caps afterwards? I'm not sure. No one has said anything about that yet.”
The 19-year-old Zary admits that getting the sweater picture on stage is an iconic image for a young hockey player. He's trying to pivot from that, though.
“You get to have a special moment at home with friends and family who maybe couldn't be there in a regular (entry draft) year,” said Zary. “With COVID-19, we're going to still keep it safe. We'll probably have 10 or 15 people over. There are so many people who helped me get to this point that you wish it could be more, but you have to be smart. You can't have a 100-person gathering in your house.”
Zary should be the first player based on a team from B.C. to hear his name called in this year's draft. The first round goes Tuesday (4 p.m., Sportsnet). Rounds two to seven are scheduled for Wednesday (8:30 a.m., Sportsnet).
The Blazers haven't had a first rounder since defenceman Keaton Ellerby went No. 10 to the Florida Panthers in 2007.
Zary is a six-foot, 180-pound left-handed shot who had 38 goals, 86 points, and a plus-30 rating in 57 games with the Blazers when the WHL season was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He wound up fifth in league scoring.
His totals were a jump from the 24 goals, 67 points and plus-18 rating he had in 63 regular-season games in 2018-19 with the Blazers.
TSN's Craig Button had Zary going No. 22 overall to the New York Rangers in the mock draft that he published on Friday.
Button's TSN colleague Bob McKenzie had Zary at No. 22 in June, while Button slotted Zary at No. 11 in March. Elite Prospects pegged Zary at No. 25 in their final rankings, while International Scouting Services put him at No. 15 in their last poll.
“I think it's all going to come down to draft day,” Zary said. “Somebody is going to take a guy out of the blue or there's going be a trade and that's going to change lists. It's suddenly the next guy up and you could be that guy.”
Zary prides himself on being a complete, two-way centre. He's a fan of Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat and says he's had scouts make that comparison when talking about his game.
Zary also sees his work ethic as one of his main attributes. “It's something that my parents especially instilled in me. You need to work for what you get. You need to go out and earn the puck,” he said.
Kelowna Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton says that while Zary plays hard and goes to the difficult areas he also has “a lot of skill.” Vancouver Giants general manager Barclay Parneta shares a similar opinion.
“I like his finish and skill around the net,” Parneta said.
Zary was one of the 26 forwards and 45 players overall invited to the Team Canada world junior summer development camp, which was held virtually in July. He believes he could play a checking or energy role if asked, which would help his chances of making that team. The International Ice Hockey Federation announced in September this year's world juniors would be held in a bubble in Edmonton without fans.
“I think I'm a guy who could be used in multiple situations, a guy who could fit in different areas up and down the lineup,” said Zary, who played for Team Canada at the 2019 Under-18 world championship in Sweden.
Zary says he's been told by NHL clubs that he needs to work on his skating and his strength, which is standard fare for players looking to move from junior to pro.
He's one of the older players in this draft — he missed the birthday cutoff for the 2019 draft by 10 days. He was a second-round pick, No. 37 overall, in the 2016 WHL bantam draft out of the Saskatoon Outlaws program.
The first three picks in the 2016 bantam draft were Peyton Krebs, Bowen Byram and Kirby Dach and they were all first rounders in last summer's NHL draft.
Zary played midget hockey in 2016-17 with the Saskatoon Contacts, a program that's featured the likes of Luke and Brayden Schenn, Blake Comeau, Darcy Kuemper, Colby Armstrong and Brent Sopel.