As Kraken fans turn the page to the offseason, they have questions about where 2022 first-round pick Shane Wright is going to play during the 2023-24 season and what his role will be. Turns out the team has questions about Wright’s status too. We learned this much during Kraken general manger Ron Francis’s May 18 end-of-season media availability.
Much remains to be determined, but here is what we know about how Shane Wright has performed so far, what he needs to work on, and his status moving forward, including why he may be at the center of a forthcoming negotiation between the Kraken, NHLPA, NHL, and CHL.
Shane Wright has little left to prove at the CHL level
In his draft year, Shane Wright played 74 games (63 regular season and 11 postseason) with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. He ranked ninth in points per game among OHL skaters with at least 10 games played (1.46) and was significantly younger than every player who ranked ahead of him. Justifiably, this made him a top prospect in the 2022 NHL Draft and the No. 4 overall pick to the Seattle Kraken.
Wright came to development camp with the Seattle Kraken and quickly signed his entry-level contract with the team. Wright then survived training camp and broke with the NHL team. That began a whirlwind tour that saw him in and out of the Kraken lineup, in the lineup for the AHL Coachella Valley Firebirds, and leading Canada’s World Junior Championship team to a gold medal, all within the span of about four months. More on those stops in a moment.
After the World Junior Championship, Francis met with Wright and told him Seattle planned to reassign him back to the OHL. This reassignment was advantageous contractually for the Kraken because it would cause his entry-level contract to “slide” a year. (I wrote more on what that means here.) But, more importantly, Francis told Wright the team wanted the young forward to press his offensive game, control possession, and dominate in the offensive zone.
After a trade from Kingston that facilitated his return to the OHL, Shane Wright played 24 games (20 regular season and 4 postseason) with the Windsor Spitfires, and he was second in the league in points per game (1.85) during that span. This year again, the league’s only more prolific scorer, Brandt Clarke (1.97), is about a year older than Wright.
Whatever the flaws in Wright’s game may be, they do not manifest at the major junior level. Wright certainly has not reached Connor Bedard-level CHL domination, but there are few players at that level that consistently produce like he does. It was certainly disappointing that Wright couldn’t help the Spitfires avoid a first-round playoff sweep (for multiple reasons, as we will discuss below), but Wright has not faced individual adversity at the junior level, and I don’t expect he will.
Shane Wright has faced challenges at higher levels of play
Moving from the major junior level to the NHL, or even the AHL, is a huge leap in competition. The physicality, pace, skill, and enhanced emphasis on structure and scheme all pose considerable challenges to even the best CHL prospects. This is why very few prospects even attempt the leap into either level of pro hockey before their age 20 seasons. Shane Wright was attempting it as an 18-year-old (he turned 19 on Jan. 5, 2023) in his draft-plus-one season and at one of the most difficult positions on the ice, center. Over the last 10 NHL seasons, only 27 skaters have managed 20-plus NHL points in their 18-year-old seasons.
Coming out of training camp, the Kraken wanted Wright to join that list by sticking in the NHL and developing into a role. It became clear pretty quickly, though, that the coaching staff did not yet view him as a trusted piece: his minutes were limited when he did play, and he never saw the ice in critical situations. Wright looked intent on avoiding turnovers, gaffes, or getting trapped on the ice beyond his shift. This led to overly conservative play, particularly with the puck. He rarely held possession looking to create, instead deferring into (sometimes dangerous) passes almost immediately. He appeared tentative in all phases, giving the impression of a player who was trying to think his way through the game rather than just playing.
In the end, he played just eight NHL games, wrapping around a two-week conditioning stint with the Coachella Valley Firebirds of the AHL. Wright averaged just 8:30 time on ice per game at the NHL level and produced just one point, a memorable goal against the Montreal Canadiens in the one game after his recall from the AHL.
At the AHL level, Wright initially seemed to take the challenge in stride. He poured in four goals in five games in late November and early December, 2022. Kraken GM Ron Francis spoke about how he thought the AHL was the proper level for Wright to develop his skills and implicitly lamented that the organization could not keep Wright there. “In a perfect world … you put [Wright] in the AHL, and that’s probably the best spot for him this past year,” Francis told reporters at the year-end press conference.
Why wasn’t the AHL a full-season option this year? “Rules dictate that we can’t do that,” Francis said. Under the CHL-NHL Transfer Agreement, an 18- or 19-year-old CHL player typically cannot be assigned by the NHL club to the AHL, but there are three exceptions. The first exception is the one-time exception for a two-week conditioning assignment. (The Kraken exploited that exception to the full extent of the rule in November.) The second exception comes if the player has already played four CHL seasons. (More on this exception in a moment.) And, the third exception allows the player to rejoin the NHL roster or be assigned to the AHL after the player’s major junior season is completed.
This last exception meant that, following the abrupt and underwhelming conclusion of the Windsor Spitrfires season, Wright found himself eligible to rejoin the Firebirds on a full-time basis. Wright took advantage, getting into fourteen consecutive games for the Firebirds, three regular season and 11 postseason. But he could not carry over his momentum from his earlier AHL stint or his major junior run where the offense came easily. In those fourteen AHL games, Wright managed just one goal and five assists, played fourth-line-equivalent minutes, and again appeared tentative and unwilling or incapable of making aggressive possession plays.
This quiet stretch culminated in Wright being scratched from the lineup for the final two games of the playoff series against the Calgary Wranglers. It is possible that he is dealing with a nagging injury, but no particular blow seemed to knock him out of the last game he played. Rather, it appears Firebirds coach Dan Bylsma concluded that other players gave his team the better chance for success, particularly with the simultaneous returns of more-established AHL performers Andrew Poturalski and Jesper Froden and AHL rookie of the year Tye Kartye.
Coachella Valley advanced to the Western Conference Finals by defeating the Calgary Wranglers last Friday night. This will give Wright further opportunity to show he belongs in the lineup. But he seems to be hitting up against a development ceiling at the moment. “He’s a young kid. We forget these guys are 18, 19, and it takes time to understand and learn the league,” Francis explained. “There are parts of his game he needs to continue to work on and we’ll … continue to help him find his way.”
Where will Wright play during the 2023-24 season?
Could Shane Wright play in the NHL next season? Francis emphasized that the challenge is ahead of Shane Wright this summer: “This is not an easy league and we have got a good team. He’s going to have to earn it like everybody else has around here, and that includes having a big summer.”
One key to improvement may be strength training in the lower half to improve the explosion in Wright’s stride and his endurance. “He’s got the tools,” Francis told Ian Furness of KJR in an interview later on May 18. “The most important thing for him when this season is done is to get in the gym and get on the bike and do the things he needs to do and push as hard as he needs to push to give himself that best opportunity to come to training camp.”
Wright has not shown that he is ready to perform at the NHL level yet, so it is on him, with support from the team, to breakthrough. If he can, all involved would be ecstatic.
Failing that immediate breakthrough, Francis was asked if there was an opportunity for Wright to play a full AHL season next year. Francis gave the press pool a noncommittal answer: “There would be some discussions we’d have to have to get clarity. I haven’t had those discussions yet.” Later in the day, Francis told Furness: “There’s a few things we would need to work through to see if he could play in the American League or not, so we have to go through that process.”
What are the potential “conversations” and issues to “work through?” Wright will enter next season as a 19-year-old. As mentioned above, players of this age cannot be assigned to the AHL typically. (David Goyette, Jagger Firkus, and Ty Nelson, for example, are all but certain to return to the CHL as 19-year-olds.) But, as was also mentioned above, there is an exception if a player has already played four seasons in the CHL.
Shane Wright was granted “exceptional status” and made eligible to play in the CHL as a 15-year-old and therefore has been a CHLer for four years. Sounds good, right? He should be eligible to play in the AHL. What is there to talk about?
Unfortunately, there is some doubt about whether Wright’s CHL tenure would actually count as “four seasons.” Under the NHL-CHL Transfer agreement, a player is deemed to have played a season in the CHL if the skater plays 25 games, and it could be argued that one or two of Wright’s four seasons do not qualify.
First, the OHL never played a 2020-21 season due to COVID, so it could be argued that season does not count for Wright because he did not play 25 games. That may be unfair, and the CHL may not argue this position, but it’s at least something that would need to be “clarified” in Francis’s words.
Second, due to his late assignment, the World Junior Championship, an injury, and Windsor’s early elimination from the playoffs, Wright played in only 24 total games with the Sptitfires this season. Again, this leaves Wright, at least arguably, just short of being able to claim this year as a CHL “season” either.
All of this creates a risk that the Kraken and Wright are stuck in no-man’s land again this season, with Wright unable to crack the NHL lineup but too good for the CHL. I expect that the Kraken will push hard for an interpretation of the NHL-CHL Transfer Agreement or a one-off exemption that allows Wright to play in the AHL if he does not make the NHL team. Given the unique circumstance, I have some hope the team would be successful in these “conversations.” But it is anything but a sure thing.
We’ll keep our eye on Wright through the AHL playoffs and into the summer. He remains a key piece of the team’s long-term future. His outlook in the short term, however, remains murky.