NO FREE GAMES: Flames coach Ryan Huska explains decision to scratch Connor Zary

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You’ve gotta earn it.

That has been the message from Calgary Flames management since last summer when it became clear that there were going to be opportunities available for younger players that might not have been there in the past.

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There was playing time available, but it doesn’t come free.

And on Thursday, head coach Ryan Huska showed he was serious about that message when he made Connor Zary a healthy scratch.

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Yes, the star rookie was watching from the press box in Winnipeg as the Flames were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to the Jets.

And if that raised a few eyebrows among those who would like to the Flames use their final seven games to give young players a lot of ice-time, well, that’s just not consistent with the standards Huska is trying to set.

“We’re not in the playoffs right now, but I don’t believe in giving free games to people just because they’re young,” Huska explained Friday at the Saddledome. “What type of message and lesson are they learning along the way? I think if you want to see the way the game should be played, you look at someone like MacKenzie Weegar — right now he’s playing every game like it’s his last game.

“That’s the expectation we have for all our players. Just because they’re young or someone that’s up-and-coming, should not be a reason why they’re getting games. They should deserve the games.”

Zary has been having a tremendous rookie season and it’s fully expected that he’ll be back in the lineup for Saturday night’s Battle of Alberta against the Edmonton Oilers. He has provided a major spark since getting called up at the beginning of November, scoring 12 goals and 18 assists in 56 games.

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But since returning from an injury that kept him out of the lineup for three weeks in March, the 22-year-old forward seems to be slightly off the pace. He had recorded one assist and was a minus-5 in six games prior to Huska’s decision to scratch him for the first time in his NHL career on Thursday night.

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Speaking on Friday back in Calgary, Zary acknowledged he was disappointed to be left out of the lineup, but vowed to use it as motivation.

“It’s nothing new, a challenge is fine,” Zary said. “Everyone is going to have mistakes and everyone’s going to have failures throughout their life and their career, that’s how you move forward. You grow and you learn.

“When you’re having success — and personally I feel like I’ve had quite a bit of success this season — you’re not really used to the failures and the downs and those things, but it’s just a normal part of life. You have bumps in the road and those make you a better person and a better player.”

That’s what you want from a player in Zary’s position.

It’s entirely predictable that a rookie trying to find his feet in the NHL is going to have a few highs and lows throughout the season. Huska knows that, but he also knows the danger in allowing the lows to become acceptable.

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And Zary knows that, too. He has set high standards for himself and it’s incumbent on the player himself to maintain those standards.

“It puts a little fire in your stomach and your soul and makes you want to come back playing harder and better,” Zary said. “Had a couple ups and downs in the last month but coming back from that, I feel good and I’m ready to go.”

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That’s what the Flames want to hear.

The decision to sit Zary wasn’t meant as any sort of punishment. Everyone is obviously thrilled with the way he’s managed to contribute so far this season and the future — clearly — is very bright.

But with his play slipping slightly over the past couple weeks, Huska wanted to give him a night off to recalibrate and focus on bringing the same excitement and work rate that Zary brought to his very first game in the NHL.

“It’s just a chance for him to take a deep breath and recognize what he has to do every day,” Huska said. “You look at the remaining games that we have and down the road, he has to have a real good grasp of that because he’s going to be an important part of our team for the remainder of this year and moving forward.

“So letting him off the hook isn’t the right way to do it.”

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