Every Thursday, NHL.com will look ahead to the 2020 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.
Connor Zary was given added motivation to produce this season when he was released from Canada's National Junior Team selection camp in December.
"I think anytime something like that goes the wrong way, and in this case it was not making the team, it's pretty disappointing, but you have to get your head in the right place and feel the fire," Zary said.
The 6-foot, 178-pound center from Kamloops of the Western Hockey League turned that fire on the rest of the WHL, scoring 45 points (19 goals, 26 assists) in 29 games after being cut from the roster for the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship on Dec. 12.
Zary, No. 15 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters eligible for the 2020 NHL Draft, tied for fifth in the WHL with 86 points (38 goals, 48 assists). The 18-year-old also tied for third in the league with 15 power-play goal and tied for fourth with three shorthanded goals. He was held without a point nine times in 57 games, and never went back-to-back games without a point.
"Hockey Canada told me to just keep working hard and that there would be another chance for me (in the 2021 WJC)," Zary said.
Zary is among the 46 players taking part in Hockey Canada's virtual national junior team summer evaluation camp, being held July 27-31, with a focus on player development through online education. The camp is the first step in picking the team that will play for Canada at the 2021 WJC, scheduled for Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2021 in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta.
"Connor has been a good player in the WHL for some time now, but this year I wanted to see him take a step and be a dominant player," said John Williams of NHL Central Scouting. "He can beat you 1-on-1, reads the play well and is real good on the penalty kill. He's more quick than fast, and is elusive in tight."
Zary, who plays a 200-foot game and is competitive on the puck, played center on the first line, along with right wing Zane Franklin and left wing Orrin Centazzo, and helped Kamloops (41-18-4), finish first in the B.C. Division of the Western Conference.
"It was a really nice change from the last few years as a lower-seeded team just barely making the playoffs ... and not making it my first season (2017-18)," Zary said. "Zane and Orrin have been outstanding and they've helped me in the middle. Zane brings a hard power game and doesn't stand down to anyone; he'll hit and fight anyone.
"Orrin is fast and skilled and a treat to play with."
With three seasons of WHL experience, Zary has learned how positional play and work ethic are critical to the success of himself and his line.
"Whether it's in the defensive zone, just being in position or battling to help get the puck out of the zone, you just have to make sure you understand where to be on the ice," he said. "In the offensive zone it's all about doing your job. When you're a skilled guy you need to make plays, but you also have to be reliable in your defense zone."
"He's a pretty special player," Kamloops goalie Dylan Garand said. "This is my second year playing with him. He's a super-skilled guy and has a really good shot ... which he should use more often. It's a good wrist shot which is pretty hard to track. He's got good hands and is creative on the ice and he's always bringing new things to practice and games. I'm happy I'm on the same side."
Scouts have compared Zary to New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac and Vancouver Canucks center Bo Horvat.
"He's a very good two-way player with skill," Williams said. "He contributes at both ends of the ice and is a big reason why Kamloops was playing so well."
Zary said Don Hay, his coach in Kamloops in 2017-18, was the most influential of his career.
"He showed me what hard work could do and that any type of reward had to be earned," Zary said. "I've really enjoyed working with coach Shaun Clouston these past two seasons in Kamloops as well.
"I really believe consistency is the key to making it in the NHL today. So many things can go wrong, but so long as you're consistent in skating and your work ethic, that will really help."
Zary also has received many valuable life-lessons from his mother, Kathleen, a schoolteacher, and his father, Scott, a police officer in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where Zary was born.
"Dad always had interesting stories for me. I had a fun childhood," Zary said. "As I got older the stories became a lot funnier. It's cool hearing about all the good he does and knowing that officers like my dad do so much for the community. It's inspiring."
Photo credit: Allen Douglas, Kamloops
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