Three reasons why Flames rookie Connor Zary has a case to be a Calder Trophy finalist

Connor Zary and Connor Bedard were facing off for the first time Tuesday as the Flames battled the Blackhawks. But could they be facing off again as Calder Trophy finalists?

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Earlier this season, Calgary Flames rookie left-winger Connor Zary was marvelling at the work of a fellow freshman, a fellow Connor.

It’s hardly a surprise that Connor Bedard is enjoying immediate success as an NHLer — it feels, after all, like the hype has been building since he was a Timbit — but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.

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As the youngest of the 700-some players in ‘The Show,’ the 18-year-old Bedard has averaged close to a point-per-game in his debut campaigns with the Chicago Blackhawks.

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“You only see maybe one or two guys every year that are able to make that jump at 18 or even 19,” said Zary, who spent his late teens with the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers and played 140 games in the minors before the brass at the Saddledome were convinced that he was ready for primetime. “There are only a couple of those guys each year who are able to come in and to just fit right in and do what they did in junior and throughout their whole life and just step into the NHL and do that same thing.

“Even look at Jack Hughes, I think he only had 20 or 30 points in his first season and now he’s an NHL superstar. So you look at that and then you see what Bedard is doing … Obviously, he has the shot, he has the skill, he has the mindset and he’s already doing great things. It’s pretty cool.”

Zary, 22, grins as he gets to his favourite part.

“And it’s always good when it’s another Western Leaguer.”

These WHL grads — on his rise to superstardom, Bedard filled arenas and stat sheets on behalf of the Regina Pats — were facing off for the first time Tuesday as the Flames battled the Blackhawks in the Windy City.

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The question is, could they be facing off again as Calder Trophy finalists?

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The NHL’s rookie-of-the-year derby is considered a two-horse race between Bedard, who entered Tuesday’s action with 55 points in 57 outings so far, and Minnesota Wild workhorse Brock Faber, a 21-year-old who is logging an unheard-of 25 minutes per night as a budding-star blue-liner.

Thing is, there will ultimately be three youngsters named as Calder finalists. In fact, the voters — this is one of the honours that is determined by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association — will list their top five choices when they submit their ballots.

Could Zary, who recently returned from an eight-game absence due to an upper-body injury, snag that other invite to the NHL’s awards gala? He certainly remains in the running for the third spot — the competition includes Wild centre Marco Rossi, New Jersey Devils blue-liner Luke Hughes and a pair of puck-stoppers in Samuel Ersson of the Philadelphia Flyers and Pyotr Kochetkov of the Carolina Hurricanes — and could bolster his case by finishing the season on some sort of heater. After Tuesday’s showdown with Bedard and the Blackhawks, the Flames have 11 dates remaining.

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Here are three stats that suggest Zary is worthy of consideration as a Calder Trophy finalist …

Point-per-game clip

Bedard is running away with the rookie scoring crown, and that is despite missing nearly six weeks as he recovered from a broken jaw. But among the NHL newbies who’ve logged a minimum of 20 appearances this season, guess who is producing at the next-best clip? It’s a tie between Faber and Zary, who are each averaging 0.56 points per game. Heading into Tuesday’s tilt at the United Center in Chicago, Zary had amassed a dozen goals and 17 assists in 52 spins so far.

That’s a plus

While it’s true that plus-minus can be a misleading stat, it’s not like Zary’s numbers have been puffed up by being part of a powerhouse squad. Not only does he lead all rookies with a plus-15 rating, but that’s the fourth-best mark among any NHLers on squads with a negative goal differential. Bedard’s gruesome plus-minus — prior to his first career clash with the crew from Calgary, he was sitting 37 strokes south of par — is a reminder that the Blackhawks wind up on the wrong end of a lot of lopsided scores.

Five-on-five impact

According to the data at Natural Stat Trick, when Zary is on the ice in five-on-five scenarios, the Flames are outscoring opponents by a 38-22 count. That’s a 63.33 goals-for percentage, which is the best among rookie regulars. The shot and scoring chance totals are also favourable when No. 47 is doing his thing. Zary does see duty on the power-play, but he’s done most of his damage at even strength on a second line that also features veteran centre Nazem Kadri and fellow kid Martin Pospisil.

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