The Kraken’s plan for Shane Wright’s development? It’s complicated

Inside the NHL

Most Kraken players had already left the ice as rookie center Shane Wright continued to toil with coaches and a few other practice stragglers for a second consecutive morning last weekend.

This is the NHL ice time for Wright most fans don’t see. Though plenty is being made about the scant 6:14 played by the No. 4 overall draft pick in his NHL debut last week, followed by two healthy scratches and then just 6:50 of time in his second game Monday night, there’s more to the start of Wright’s career than what’s shown on ROOT Sports telecasts.

The Kraken are cautiously breaking Wright, 18, into the league, striking a balance between playing time and maintaining his confidence. Still, as with any top draft pick, some fans eager to see the Kraken’s future unfold worry Wright’s development is being compromised and have taken to social media to express disappointment at his limited usage.

Well, they’d best settle in for the long haul, as there’s more at play than merely tossing Wright into games with a sink-or-swim approach. Wright’s lack of ice time again in a 5-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday had more to do with a succession of second-period penalties and a lack of five-on-five opportunities.

But considering veteran Kraken scorers were being shut down by one of the league’s top defensive teams, it isn’t surprising that Wright was largely denied the chance to have his lunch money taken from him as well.

“We’ve talked a lot about a real good plan for him developmentally,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol had said beforehand. “We’re making sure he’s got some real good, positive opportunities to be in the lineup.”

Wright did record his first NHL shot against Carolina and mostly hasn’t looked out of place in the regular season, preseason and practices. That’s by design, with the Kraken limiting his exposure so he does n’t feel overmatched and overwhelmed.

This isn’t like last spring’s 10-game late-season trial run for center Matty Beniers coming off an NCAA campaign and Team USA stint at the Winter Olympics. Beniers had faced grown men in their 20s before his NHL debut, and the Kraken had the option of sending him to the minor pro American Hockey League if he wasn’t quite ready.

That isn’t the case with Wright, who played a couple of Ontario Hockey League seasons with the Kingston Frontenacs — with one pandemic-canceled season in between — in which he faced mostly 18- and-19-year-olds.

Unlike the NCAA, the Canadian Hockey League’s junior circuits — the OHL, the Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — have a deal with the NHL that 18- or-19-year-old draftees not making the big club must be returned to their junior teams and not the AHL or ECHL. This stems from decades ago when for-profit junior teams tired of NHL squads depleting them of top players they had no intention of keeping right away.

So the deal now states that an NHL team can play such teenage junior draft picks for up to nine games. Then they must be returned to their junior team or kept all season on the NHL roster — burning one of their three entry-level-contract (ELC) years.

It’s different for college players and even European junior leaguers and pros such as Juraj Slafkovsky, who Montreal drafted No. 1 overall last July when many believed they’d select Wright.

Slafkovsky is Wright’s age but can be sent to the AHL if he appears overmatched, and his three-year ELC wouldn’t start until the next season.

No such luck with Wright, meaning the Kraken face a big decision. And they’d rather get Wright as prepared as possible for each of those nine trial games to best gauge his progress over time rather than blow through them in a few weeks.

Keep in mind, Wright to the OHL so returning he can dominate teenagers again isn’t the Kraken’s preferred developmental path.

But if they keep Wright all season, they don’t want his confidence shattered because he got belted around by the Los Angeles Kings, Vegas Golden Knights, Hurricanes, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche within an eight-day span in a brutal early Kraken schedule.

That’s where practice time comes in, arriving early and staying late.

“The extra work that he gets with our coaching staff, with our skill staff, is very important in terms of some of the small skills of the game,” Hakstol said. “From faceoffs to different areas of play. But the biggest thing is just staying confident and continuing to grow and for him to be excited about being in the lineup.”

And throwing Wright out there to be stymied by a succession of elite NHL teams risks him going from being excited about playing to dreading each game. Better to keep honing skills in practice, where he can acclimate to the pace and physical play before testing him in games too often, too soon.

Kraken defenseman Will Borgen knows the value of practice in lieu of playing. Borgen remained with the Kraken all last season at age 24 — after having played only 14 NHL games — despite barely being used before March because the team feared they’d lose him on waivers if it tried sending him to the AHL.

There was similar social media harping that sitting Borgen so much might ruin his development. But he’s now a regular on the Kraken’s third defensive pairing and hasn’t missed a beat.

Borgen said Monday he spent non-playing days working heavily with assistant coach Jay Leach on ice and watching video.

“It’s just about the details of the game,” Borgen said. “Because I know I can play. But you’ve just got to learn all the small details, like where to keep your stick or the proper position to be in so that you’re ready all the time.

“So that helps. And then obviously, just being around the guys, getting to know them better and then feeling more comfortable with them helps your confidence.”

And though he’d have gotten ample AHL playing time, Borgen didn’t want it.

“I’m an NHL player,” he said. “I felt like I was ready to be here. That’s where my head was at.”

As for Wright, he certainly doesn’t want to return to junior hockey.

So like Borgen, the Kraken need Wright believing he’s an NHL player. And for now that means making sure he keeps looking like one on nights they do let him play.

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