Flames' Pelletier, Zary trying to beat odds, crack veteran-laden roster

Calgary Flames' Connor Zary skates during a training camp practice in Calgary, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh / CP)

Having spent considerable time alongside fellow Calgary Flames first-rounder Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary was asked how much French he knows.

“'Hello' and 'goodbye,' that’s about it,” he laughed.

Some believe those two words will best sum up the camp experience the duo will have as Flames hopefuls this fall.

Despite being the two most highly-touted youngsters at the 26-man prospects camp that opened Thursday, the odds are long that either has much of a chance to crack a veteran-laden roster made deeper by a series of recent signings.

By no means does it suggest their camp with prospects or the main group will be a failure or waste of time.

Valuable experience is gained every day young players are at the Dome, getting stronger and wiser under the guidance of the team’s top specialists.

They know that, but are still focused on trying to beat the odds.

“For both of us, we put in a lot of work this summer and you come into camp not worrying about the depth chart,” said Zary, a well-rounded, 19-year-old centre who was selected 24th in the 2020 draft.

“Everyone has to do their job, and everyone has to perform. Just because your name is higher than someone else’s on the list doesn’t mean they can’t come out here and be better than you. So, I think every day you’ve got to put your head down and go to work.”

A mature attitude for a teen who benefited tremendously by being able to play nine games with the Flames' AHL affiliate while the WHL season was delayed last season.

Pelletier, meanwhile, continued his dominance in the QMJHL, posting 13 goals and 43 points across 28 games in Val D’Or, before adding a whopping 15 playoff goals in 25 outings. The five-foot-10, 170-pound left winger, who was taken 26th in 2019, said he’s undeterred by the Flames' long list of left wingers who will be waiting for him in main camp next week.

“We kind of know who the players are, to be honest,” said the 20-year-old, who will play his first year pro this year.

“But we’re here to play. There’s a whole staff that is going to make some decisions. Our job is just to play here. The goal is to make the Flames team for sure.”

Stranger things have happened.

“When young players are ready to play, they’ll be playing, so I don’t think people should be worried,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving, addressing concerns from people who saw the signing of 36-year-old Brad Richardson and 34-year-old Trevor Lewis as stymying youngsters’ chances of cracking the forward ranks.

“I’ve heard that criticism before, but I don’t know where we’ve hurt a young guy. You can hurt a young guy by sticking him in when he’s not ready. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. Because you’re a young guy you automatically get a job?

“Our coach, what he likes to do, is win. So, it doesn’t matter what age a player is, if he can help us win, the best player is going to win the job.

I think we know where our young players are in their development, being around them every day.”

Treliving cites recent breakthroughs by Dillon Dube and Juuso Valimaki as examples of top prospects being given the chance to play with the big boys when the time is right.

However, as a GM you have to be prepared that youngsters will need more seasoning and plan for alternatives by inking lads like Lewis and Richardson who have won Stanley Cups.

“I look back over my seven years here and I don’t think we’ve been nervous to put young players in when they are ready to play,” added Treliving.

“We have some young guys we think are going to be pushing for jobs. There should be competition and it should be a meritocracy where, if you’ve earned it, you can play.”

Both first-rounders spent the last month training and skating in Calgary, making them more and more comfortable with their surroundings and understanding what’s expected of them.

“I was pretty fortunate, in a sense, that the Western league didn’t start (on time) and I got the opportunity to play nine games with Stockton and get a little taste of professional hockey,” said Zary, who had an impressive seven points with the Heat before notching six goals and 24 points in 15 games with Kamloops last season.

“Just to play at that speed of professional hockey, not just junior hockey, I think it’s a step in the right direction to get that taste of the next level. Coming into this camp, it makes it a lot easier. You know guys’ faces and you’re a lot more comfortable. You know the coaching staff and what’s expected of you.”

Rookie Stockton coach Mitch Love was an assistant with Team Canada at the world juniors last Christmas and saw both perform well in pressure-packed situations.

“The first thing that comes to mind, even since January, is their physique – they’ve added a lot of muscle,” said Love, who is overseeing the five-day prospects camp, which ends with hosting a scrimmage against Edmonton on Monday.

“One thing that intrigues me about both is they’re highly competitive.

I’ve been impressed with their hockey IQ. They think the game so well.”

Question is, can they get management thinking more and more about keeping them around?

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