This article was originally published in the Future Watch issue of The Hockey News.
Plenty of people meet their idols. Few have realistic chances to become their idols.
A decade ago, a 10-year-old kid named Trevor Zegras unknowingly looked into his future one night after watching the Chicago Blackhawks play live. He got the opportunity to enter their dressing room post-game and meet his favorite player: Patrick Kane, a superstar born in New York State who cut his teeth at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program before building a Hall of Fame-worthy NHL career on the strength of his nearly unrivalled puck skills. By the time they met again years later, at a Red Wings game in Detroit, Zegras was a rising star, born in New York State, dominating at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program on the strength of his nearly unrivalled puck skills. Zegras was just months away from being
selected ninth overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2019 NHL draft.
By that point, as an NTDP sophomore, Zegras was beginning to sense how astronomical his potential was. Joking around with Kane felt much closer to speaking to a peer than it did almost a decade earlier. But it wasn’t always that way. Before Zegras understood just how unique his offensive skills were, he was a humble and hardworking hockey sponge, head down, absorbing information every day.
Growing up in Bedford, N.Y., Zegras wasn’t one of those multi-sport kids who hit a fork in the road in his early teens and had to choose between hockey and baseball. He didn’t dream of any particular non-sports profession as a fallback, either. It was just hockey, hockey and more hockey. It’s what he thought about all the time. YouTube essentially became his film room. He was a diehard New York Rangers fan, cheering for the Henrik Lundqvist/Rick Nash/Marian Gaborik-era teams, but it was Kane that Zegras wanted to study. “I love everything about Kaner’s game,” Zegras said. “He can slow it down or pick up the speed. Pretty much the entire game would run through him and his hands. He was really good on the power play and had all the
spin-o-rama passes and played with a little bit of flair and a little bit of flash. I liked all that stuff, and it was something I liked practising. I would go watch how he played or some of the plays he made, and I would go practise in the driveway or go practise in my house.”
So Zegras grew up repeating and perfecting those slick-mitted skills until they became second nature. His base skill set, almost on an unconscious level, became highlight-reel stuff. He didn’t have to strain himself to execute dazzling dangles because they were baked deep into his overall playing style. “Pretty much my entire game is that confidence with the puck,” he said. “I feel like everybody has a lot of skill and can make plays, but at the end of the day, a big thing for me is using that every shift or every time I get the puck. Just having that confidence that I can make plays at any level or anywhere on the ice is something I like to remind myself of.”
With Zegras’ specific set of hockey tools, it’s easy to stand out, and it wasn’t long before he did. He averaged almost an assist per game in his final year of prep school. Within a couple years of joining the NTDP, he was posting jaw-dropping numbers as part of what many scouts believe is the greatest overall class of players the program has ever produced. It set a record in the 2019 NHL draft’s first round with eight of its players being selected: Jack Hughes, Alex Turcotte, Zegras, Matthew Boldy, Spencer Knight, Cam York, Cole Caufield and Johnny Beecher. Still,
Zegras spent much of that year playing third-line center at the NTDP
behind Hughes and Turcotte. He wasn’t being hyped on their level.
It was the past two World Junior Championships that really vaulted Zegras from “only” a slam-dunk first-round selection by the Ducks to being considered a steal even at ninth overall. His nine assists in five games led all players at the 2020 WJC, and he went on to average better than a point per game as a freshman at Boston University in 2019-20. Then Zegras went absolutely supernova at the 2021 WJC, carrying the Americans on his back like few players have carried any nation in the history of the world juniors. Running away with MVP honors on the gold-medallist squad, Zegras racked up 18 points in seven games. His point total was the 12th-highest for one tournament in WJC history and matched Brayden Schenn’s 2011 effort for the most points by any player at a WJC this millennium. Zegras equalled
Jordan Schroeder’s all-time record for points by an American at the tournament with 27 – and Zegras did it in 12 games, seven fewer than it took Schroeder.
By that point, Zegras was no longer being billed as just a surefire top-six NHL forward: he was being talked up as a future all-star, easily Anaheim’s best forward prospect since Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. “I think he has a hat trick of qualities on top of his skill, imagination, creativity and confidence,” said TSN director of scouting Craig Button. “He has that creativity, he’s got an imagination for the ability to see things that aren’t yet unfolding fully here in front of other people, he’s got an unbelievable confidence to carry it through, and they all work hand in hand.”
Before Getzlaf and Perry became Stanley Cup winners and Ducks franchise institutions, however, they ground it out for half a season with the AHL’s Portland Pirates, then Anaheim’s affiliate. Regardless of the buzz around Zegras’ WJC, which ended exactly a week before the truncated 2020-21 NHL season started, and despite the fact the Ducks had iced the league’s second-worst power play last season, they decided to start Zegras in the AHL, too. Hype: calmed. But Zegras didn’t pout. He took the demotion with a smile, and AHL San Diego Gulls coach Kevin Dineen, who happened to be coach of the AHL Pirates when Getzlaf and Perry were there in 2005-06, sees some parallels.
Dineen is quick to clarify he’s not saying Zegras is the same type of player, but he sees similarities in the professionalism and maturity with which Zegras took his AHL assignment. Zegras’ puck skills were obvious upon arrival to the Gulls, but Dineen was particularly impressed with his two-way responsibility, even if there were the odd mental lapses or “burps and hiccups.”
Dineen believes Zegras’ play is “an extension of his personality,” which, in Zegras’ case, means playing the game with infectious joy. “He’s a fun teammate to be around, he’s a real good student of the game, and he’s an enthusiastic guy,” Dineen said. “It’s a bit of a kick in the tail for anybody getting sent to the American League, but he jumped in with both feet and really became a quality teammate. He showed that in his game and the way he wanted to distribute the puck and work with his linemates.”
His teammates included Ducks 2020 first-rounder Jamie Drysdale, who got to play in the AHL this year at 18 because the OHL wasn’t playing games yet due to COVID-19. He and Zegras represent the Ducks’ highest draft picks since nabbing Hampus Lindholm sixth overall in 2012 and are unquestionably the two pillars of the team’s rebuild, so it’s high praise when a lauded talent like Drysdale gushes over what Zegras can do.
“He’s a heck of a player and definitely hard to defend,” Drysdale said. “He’s very good at creating time and space for himself. Any time he has the puck, you’re hesitant to go at him, because you know he’ll put it through you or put it right on someone’s back door. His skill speaks for itself, and his playmaking is off the charts. The skill of that guy is next level.”
When Zegras earned a late-February NHL promotion, a month before his 20th birthday, he was tied for the AHL scoring lead. The Ducks had the league’s 30th-ranked power play for the second straight year, so their lineup yearned for a presence like Zegras’. They didn’t hand him a high-stakes role right away, however. Coach Dallas Eakins eased him in with middle-six minutes, a shift from his natural position of center to the right wing and a smattering of power-play time. It’s clear Anaheim won’t rush Zegras.
The Ducks are in a transitional phase of their rebuild, waiting to see what captain Getzlaf, 35, does after his contract expires this off-season and trying to understand what they really have in their secondary prospects such as Sam Steel and Max Jones, who are a few seasons into their NHL careers. Zegras figures to be the centerpiece of the forward corps eventually but still has a few edges to smooth out.
He arguably doesn’t have an NHL body quite yet at six-foot and a lanky 182 pounds, generously boosted from the 174 listed on his AHL profile, and that matters, because his buzzsaw style of play can rile up opponents, and he’ll thus need the muscle to win puck battles. He also badly wants to improve as a goal-scorer. While his playmaking skills stand out, most scouts believe his shot is sneaky good, but it doesn’t yet meet his standards. “I want to score more goals, so does everybody, but it’s something I am working on,” Zegras said. “I think I can be more dangerous with the puck in terms of being a shooting threat, and hopefully I can produce a little bit more in that category.”
It shouldn’t be long before he does. Having watched him since his NHL promotion, Button sees all the same characteristics that made Zegras dominant in the USHL, NCAA and AHL: the confidence and intelligence with the puck, the willingness to set up teammates, the ability to attack defenders while carrying the puck. Will that soon translate to making a significant impact at the NHL level? Button thinks so. “He projects as a No. 1 producing player that will lead, be the top scorer on his team, top 25 scorers in the National Hockey League, that I have no doubt,” Button said.
“Because he’s done it everywhere he’s been.”
Thanks to COVID, the NHL’s realigned format keeps every team playing within its own division. That means the Ducks, confined to the West and buried in last place, don’t get to play the Blackhawks this season. Zegras will have to wait until at least 2021-22 to share the ice with his boyhood hero. By the time he does, Zegras might do so as one of the NHL’s breakout stars, armed with the loudest, most GIF-worthy arsenal of skills any Duck has showcased since Paul Kariya.