Wright’s game growing in ‘leaps and bounds’

Photo: Mike Zitek

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer


So much of Shane Wright’s work this season has centered around the less glamorous but absolutely vital parts of the game.

For any young AHL forward, that might look something like defensive-zone work, tracking, angling, coverages and all of the other elements that go toward making a well-rounded National Hockey League player.

But Wright, the Coachella Valley Firebirds rookie, also managed to record 47 points (22 goals, 25 assists) in 59 regular-season games and earn a spot on the AHL Top Prospects Team.

And then there are moments like Game 3 against Hershey on Tuesday night, moments where Wright gets a chance to show off the world-class skill that made him the fourth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, to make the kind of play that lights up a crowd.

 

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Wright’s goal put the game fully in the Firebirds’ control on their way to a 6-2 victory that put them ahead in the best-of-seven series, two games to one. Game 4 is tonight (10 ET/7 PT, AHLTV, NHL Network) at Acrisure Arena, where Firebirds fans will have another opportunity to take in Wright’s elite skill. There are the speed and the phenomenal array of shots, of course. But that goal on Tuesday showed elements of what he has been working on all season.

Wright used his excellent intuition and hockey sense to detect an opportunity to bring the puck out of the defensive zone. From there, he accelerated to beat one defender deep into the Hershey zone. At the left circle, he looked off one defender, using Kole Lind to his right as a decoy. He hit the brakes, backing off the second Hershey defenseman and buying himself ample space to cross into the slot unimpeded and then rip a shot high past Hunter Shepard.

Wright, who added two assists in Game 3 to give him nine points in nine playoff games, earned himself eight contests with the Kraken earlier this season, producing four goals and an assist. It was a taste of what Seattle fans can expect to see, perhaps as soon as this fall.

This has been a year for Wright to build confidence as well.

“Knowing I’m good enough to play here, and I’m good enough to make a difference and to be a strong player and have an impact on the game” have been areas of growth, Wright explained.

“You’re learning every single game, every single day. You’re talking to [teammates]. Talking to the coaches as well. Just learning and growing and trying to develop my game as best I can to try to get better every single day here.”

Last season was chaotic for Wright as a 19-year-old, including time in the NHL, in the AHL, in the Ontario Hockey League, and at the IIHF World Junior Championship, where he captained Canada to a gold medal. It finished back with the Firebirds, playing 24 games during the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Wright didn’t turn 20 until Jan. 5, so he needed to be granted eligibility be assigned to the AHL this season, and the Kraken’s decision to send him to Coachella Valley has paid off well. For one, he has been able to stay in one place and with one team, save for the late-season promotion to Seattle. And with the Firebirds it has been the job of head coach Dan Bylsma – who will take over the Kraken bench in the fall – and his staff to round out Wright’s game, to put the necessary finishing touches that can make him a fixture in Seattle for the next decade and beyond.

“I think this year was a chance to start your pro career, not worry about the outside noise, not worry about projections or draft order or all those things,” Bylsma said. “Just to play some hockey and play like you can and work on your craft and get better.”

Wright has long been familiar with hype and pressure. He entered the OHL as a 15-year-old after being given “exceptional player” status by Hockey Canada, a rare designation that has been reserved for the likes of Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad and John Tavares, among a few others. He was an OHL rookie of the year. He has been through the intense pressure that comes with representing Canada in junior competition.

Going through the Calder Cup Playoffs last year, though, that was something different. This spring has brought its own challenges, too. Wright missed six games with an injury, including all of the Western Conference Finals against Milwaukee. But he returned for Game 1 against Hershey, stepped into an even bigger role when veteran Andrew Poturalski left that game, and has continued to be a force, a source of quiet confidence, for these Firebirds.

“It’s intense,” Wright said of the AHL postseason. “It’s hard hockey. Every player is good. It’s a battle every single night. You’ve got to be good. You’ve got to be sharp.”

That intensity has benefited Wright, no question. But he has also needed some normalcy, too, a chance to blend in on a team and develop off the ice as well.

At the 2022 draft, Wright was projected by some to go first overall. Instead he went fourth after Juraj Slafkovsky, Simon Nemec and Logan Cooley.

Said Bylsma, “I think there’s a lot that goes into it, both mentally and physically, for an 18-year-old kid leading up to the draft and the projections, not being number one, what that means for your year going into camp. A whole mental side of it that you’re trying to have develop. When we got him at the end of the year, he was still dealing with all these things. This year was an opportunity for him as a person, and mentally and physically he’s put all that stuff behind.”

This season has allowed Wright to go through the ups and downs that come with a club’s season-long individual and collective growth.

“Playing the American Hockey League schedule, 72 games, he got a chance to do that over and over again. And some of it was good, and some of it was bad. You keep trying to get better at the craft. His game has grown leaps and bounds this year.”

For all of the years of hype, Wright mainly just tries to blend in with his teammates. A typical post-game press conference with Wright will elicit much more reaction from him when the topic turns to a teammate’s success. With his own play, he defers toward modesty. Like the rest of his teammates, Wright came into this season looking to move past last year’s seven-game Finals loss to the Bears. It was an experience to draw from, but the Firebirds have wanted to look forward, to focus on taking the Calder Cup themselves in 2024.

They are now two wins away from lifting the Calder Cup. They could have a chance to do it as early as Saturday on home ice. Regardless, this series may well be Wright’s farewell to the AHL before going on to the Kraken. His performance all season can only have helped his chances of breaking into the Seattle lineup full-time next season.

But there is another goal at hand this week.

“Definitely you want a little redemption after last year,” Wright said before the series began. “We were so close last year. We were right there. We don’t want to have that feeling again.”