It’s almost comical to imagine that an 18-year-old playing in his eighth career NHL game, running up against a fellow 18-year-old playing in his 20th career NHL game, could be a storyline that dominates the hockey world. But that is what we’re going to get for the next 36 hours or so. It has been confirmed that Seattle Kraken No. 4 overall pick, Shane Wright, will be in the lineup Tuesday against the No. 1 overall pick, Juraj Slafkovsky, and the Montreal Canadiens.
If it weren’t for how the 2022 NHL Entry Draft played out, this would not be a particularly notable storyline. It draws attention because everybody who is anybody with an opinion on the draft assumed for the longest time that Wright would end up as that No. 1 pick and begin his career with the Habs. Instead, he slipped all the way down to No. 4, and as Kraken director of amateur scouting Robert Kron said, “Christmas came early” for Seattle.
Since obtaining exceptional status to join the OHL early in 2019, Wright had been tagged as the consensus top pick. Once Montreal won the NHL Draft Lottery, pundits far and wide started penciling him onto the Canadiens roster for years to come.
Yet, in the days and weeks leading up to the draft, the winds started to shift. It became less of a foregone conclusion that Wright would be selected first overall, as so many had been predicting for so long. Lo and behold, Wright’s name was not called first by Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes. Instead, it was Slafkovsky who hustled onto the stage at Bell Centre and donned the Montreal bleu, blanc, et rouge.
Knowing the context of the next two picks, it was unsurprising to see New Jersey take defenseman Simon Nemec at No. 2 and only slightly surprising to see Arizona select Logan Cooley at No. 3. When the Kraken went on the clock, general manager Ron Francis wasted no time in proudly announcing that Seattle would take Wright at No. 4.
A lot was made in the days that followed the draft of how disappointed Wright must have been and how he gave the Montreal draft table a hard look from the stage.
Wright has since dispelled the theory that he was intentionally staring anyone down, and contrary to popular wisdom, he has displayed nothing but positivity about his situation since arriving in Seattle.
Now, Wright will get his first chance to show Montreal that it made the wrong choice.
Wright is back from the AHL
Wright has been in an odd spot during the early stages of his first pro season. Too good to return to the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, but not quite developed enough to crack Seattle’s roster full time, he’s been stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Because of the transfer rules between the CHL and the NHL and because of his age, Wright is not eligible to spend this season with the AHL’s Coachella Valley Firebirds. Truth be told, we believe the AHL would be the perfect place for him right now, as he would be able to play every night and get plenty of minutes on the top line. Instead, Wright spent the first two months of the season mostly scratched by the Kraken. During that time, he did get good, hard work in with the team’s coaches and players, helping him adjust to the speed of the best hockey league in the world.
The healthy scratches ended up affording Wright a unique opportunity to get some of that AHL experience he so sorely needed. Thanks to a loophole in the rules, by scratching him five games in a row, Seattle was allowed to assign Wright to the Firebirds on a two-week conditioning stint.
Wright performed well with Coachella Valley, scoring four goals in five games and adding a shootout goal. Kraken coach Dave Hakstol liked what he saw as well but cautioned against reading too much into the offensive success.
“You got to be careful to over-analyze everything,” Hakstol said. “Really nice to be able to see him play some minutes. Nice to see him have— he had some early success, in terms of the offensive side, scoring a couple goals. Those are all real positives.”
Now, Wright’s conditioning stint is over, and he returned to Kraken practice Monday.
Slafkovsky has had a good start
The situation for Slafkovsky has been quite different. Though Montreal has been punching above its weight to get itself narrowly above .500, it is a team that is focused on developing its young players for the future with no real aspirations of contending this season. That focus on development has allowed coach Martin St. Louis to be patient with Slafkovsky, keeping him in key roles in the lineup and building him up to as many as 14 minutes of ice time per game.
Playing on a line with veterans Sean Monahan and Josh Anderson, Slafkovsky has started to produce offensively. He now has four goals and three assists, including a point in each of his last two games.
Physically much larger than Wright and having already played against men in the Finnish Liiga, we are not surprised to see Slafkovsky transitioning to the NHL faster, though we still believe Wright has the highest upside of anyone in the 2022 draft.
As for what’s happening on the other side, Wright isn’t too worried about what Slafkovsky is doing for Montreal. “Two different situations with what’s going on,” Wright said. “I’m really more focused on myself and my game and what I’m doing here and what I want to bring to the team here.”
A challenging development road for Wright
Wright has been forced out of the NHL lineup mostly by circumstance. Seattle is proving itself to be a contender and has always maintained its goal this season is to make the playoffs. So, how could Hakstol continue to send him out night after night if Wright wasn’t giving the Kraken the best chance to win?
It’s a tough spot for the coach and the player, but the Kraken got creative and found a way to get Wright some additional playing time in the AHL. It will be worth watching to see if that extra time has helped build Wright up to being NHL ready.
Through the first couple months of the season, Hakstol said the Kraken have been happy with Wright’s approach but recognized that every player’s journey is different. “I’ve been through this with many young players, players that go on to be great players. Every player is different in their trajectory and their pathway and how they’re going to get there.”
Whether the short stint with Coachella Valley did enough to make Wright more effective at the NHL level remains to be seen, but Wright believes it helped him in the short term. “I definitely gained a lot of confidence down there,” Wright said. “It was nice to be able to play a lot of high minutes, get a lot of touches, and play the puck as well, and just kind of play my game. You know, be myself and regain that confidence in myself and my abilities and hopefully bring that back to Seattle.”
Wright will likely only get limited, fourth-line playing time again Tuesday, but it sure will be fun to see him on the ice next to the guy that knocked him out of the top spot in the 2022 draft.