Shane Wright, prospect development, and the value of a fresh look

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joins the Jeff Marek Show to discuss Shane Wright finally sniping his first NHL goal, how happy he is for him given his struggles to start this season, but is very curious to see what his path is after the World Juniors.

There was a time when “thinking” was darn near a profession unto itself. Usually, though, it was an integral part of a greater cause, for inventors, for astronomers, for philosophers, and just about everything. If you spend much time reading any biographies of Da Vinci or Einstein or Edison or Kepler, or anyone who contributed greatly to figuring out our world, you know that sometimes they simply got stuck.

They hit problems they couldn’t overcome, and they did everything in their power to shake their brain free to see the issue in a new light, waiting for that eureka moment. They might look at the problem while laying upside down, or evaluate a problem backwards, or do what I like to do, simply bang their head against a wall.

The most common solution to successfully get unstuck, though, was to simply step away from a problem for a while and come back to it later. They had the capability to solve the problem ahead of them, they just needed their brain in the right state to see it.

After Shane Wright had been healthy scratched by the Seattle Kraken 11 times and played just seven NHL games, he was mercifully sent down the AHL, where the hope was he could find himself. I had evaluated his play in the NHL here, where I noted that through seven games he had just one shot, and touched the puck for a total of 90 seconds. For a great player with obvious tools, he wasn’t getting to the open areas, he was turning pucks over, and he just wasn’t thinking the game the way he had always been able to. His brain had been a strength, until it wasn’t.

He went down to the American League for five games, scored four goals, came back up, and looked like a wholly different hockey player against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night. He was excellent.

The question that’s been asked about that marked turnaround is: “Is the difference simply confidence?” And there’s no doubt going down a level and scoring and feeling better about his game would be a huge boost. But a big part of this, to me, has been allowing Wright to step away from the Kraken and the NHL for a second, and to come back and tackle the problems from a new angle. He was returning with a sense of the challenges he’d be facing, while remembering which tools he has at his disposal.

What I noticed from Wright in his eighth NHL game was how often he popped into a shooting spot for his teammates to find him.

Even when there wasn’t an open passing lane, it was like remembering that “Oh yeah, to shoot it into the net I have to get into the slot and present myself.” He was regularly in a spot like this against the Habs:

There’s no lane for a pass in this instance, but he was trying to be available. And because of that simple difference, he suddenly became a weapon. First, there was the goal, where he presents his stick in the slot:

But that was just one of a half-dozen times he did it. He almost scores here by being available at the top of the crease off the rush:

Below, he digs a puck out on the forecheck and skates to the dangerous area again:

And almost-scoring aside, he just looked like a skilled player making skilled plays. Here he sends Yanni Gourde in on a breakaway, nearly adding an assist, then goes to the crease for the follow-up:

In sum, Wright was great, and his line as whole was, too. They were far more dangerous with him contributing, as you’d expect.

That loops me back around to the intro, where I can assure you Shane Wright did not learn how to play hockey in the AHL last week. He’s always known the solutions to the questions posed at the NHL level, sometimes you just have to step away and come back to a problem to see it more clearly. (Yes, you can call that confidence if you like, but part of what will now be “confidence” comes by earning it, simply from getting a fresh look.)

I bring Wright back into the discussion today because nearly every NHL team has a young talented player they’d like to get un-stuck. Often, the debate becomes: is it better to give this player a run of 10 games on the top line and try to just figure it out, or is it better to send them down (or healthy scratch them), where they can either get a different opportunity, or just the chance to step away and see the game from a different angle for a minute?

In Toronto, that debate centres around Nick Robertson, though it’s not unique to their organization. (What’s funny, is they went through something similar as Rasmus Sandin “passed” Timothy Liljegren, who spent much more time in the AHL. The latter just needed more time – as Robertson might? – and a different path to get to the same place they’re both at now.)

The issue is partly a problem with how these sort of “demotions” are covered by the media, which is an issue the teams themselves have created. Young players who can contribute have such value (thanks, salary cap), that teams want it to work out with their draft picks as soon as possible. So they often give them too much – and promise too much – and suddenly they fear irreparably damaging confidence (or worse, relationships) by moving players out of the big spotlight to step away and get a different look. There’s some weird shame associated with taking an extra minute.

It needn’t be such a dramatic decision, nor a need for a referendum on a player. Patience is a weapon for organizations who know how to wield it, and I give the Kraken credit: when things didn’t go as planned last season, they didn’t panic, but rather slow-played most of their decisions, which are looking pretty good this season. With Wright, getting him a look in the minors was unequivocally the best thing for the player, and that takes patience. Heck, they may need to be patient for the whole year here – it’s not like the player is forever changed, and is suddenly a point-per-game guy. He’ll have plenty of down moments, despite his recent “up.”

But the Kraken allowed Wright to see things fresh all over again, and when he was presented with the same challenges as earlier in the season, he saw his way through them. He saw new paths.

It should be a lesson to teams around the NHL.

There is no shame in not giving everything to your young players right away. Stepping away for a few games is not failure. Development is not failure. The path of no two successful people is the same, and while Wright’s story is yet to be written, how the Kraken handled his early struggles gives him a fair chance to look back at his 2022-23 season as a success. The same player was able to look different, because he was offered a different view.

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