Kraken are wasting Shane Wright's trial run

There is a clever contingency in the standard NHL entry-level contract that teams routinely exploit. Players are allowed to play up to nine games in the big leagues before the professional club is forced to decide whether to send the prospect back down to junior hockey, or if they’re over 19, the American Hockey League.

In essence, this creates a trial window for teams to debut their prospects, an extended look at how their future can seamlessly blend into the present. This is mainly a good thing, but there are exceptions to the rule, and we’ve found a glaring violation of the principle here. During their second season in the league, the Seattle Kraken are wasting Shane Wright’s initial look at the NHL, a baffling concept from an expansion franchise that struggled miserably to score goals during the 2021-22 campaign.

If you’re a hockey fan, it’s hard not to be acquainted with Wright, but here’s the summary: Wright was considered the consensus top prospect in the 2022 NHL Draft until the final month of the pre-draft process, where Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley emerged as legitimate competitors for the spot. In front of a rocking Bell Centre, the hometown Montreal Canadiens selected Slafkovsky first overall, Wright dropped to fourth, and appeared to send a menacing glance towards Montreal’s table upon being selected.

Wright gained exceptional status into the Ontario Hockey League as an underage minor hockey phenom and was initially lauded for his scoring exploits. He’s the most pro-ready player from the 2022 draft class. And while it’s little surprise he cracked the Kraken’s opening-night roster, his professional team is wasting his damn time.

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Ahead of Friday’s game against the defending champion Colorado Avalanche, Wright has averaged merely six minutes and 33 seconds of ice time through three games. He was also benched for Seattle’s second and third games of the regular season, calling into question why Wright wasn’t seeing ice time at any level.

That’s simply not good enough. Wright is a highly-talented player with innate hockey sense and while he won’t be confused for Connor McDavid, he’s an above-average NHL skater with a good feel for the game. Electing to play Wright sparingly through his trial run isn’t beneficial to either party — Wright doesn’t benefit from an extended look at NHL competition, while the Kraken get little use out of a player who could contribute in a top-nine role, at minimum.

“We’ve talked a lot about a real good plan for him developmentally,” Kraken head coach Dave Hakstol said recently via Geoff Baker of The Seattle Times. “We’re making sure he’s got some real good, positive opportunities to be in the lineup.”

Hakstol doesn’t owe the hockey media a larger explanation of his plan but it better be clear to his 18-year-old center who is the face of the infant franchise. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Wright either — his most common opponents have been St. Louis’s Ivan Barbashev and Anaheim’s Frank Vatrano, both of whom dominated the shot attempts when matched against Wright.

Shane Wright hasn't seen enough playing time with the Kraken to start his career. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Shane Wright hasn't seen enough playing time with the Kraken to start his career. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

There is work to be done, for sure. But this is a matter of talent evaluation and prospect management. If Wright, despite his rangy toolbox, speed and playmaking ability is indeed overmatched at the NHL level, there’s no impetus for the Kraken to let him erode on the bench instead of going back to the OHL.

Wright recorded 32 goals and 94 points in 63 games last season with the Kingston Frontenacs, despite missing a key developmental year as the 2020-21 OHL season was canceled due to the pandemic. There’s ample reason to believe Wright would’ve been the OHL’s leading scorer if he didn’t make the Kraken’s roster out of camp — his former minor-hockey linemate and New York Rangers 2021 first-rounder Brennan Othmann currently leads the OHL in scoring.

Wright could’ve played over 20 minutes per night while continuing to work on the fine edges of his game — he needs to get stronger and continue to grow his two-way game, as most 18-year-olds need to. There’s no shame in sending Wright to the juniors, it’s a rite of passage for all but the best players on the planet, but the Kraken have to be careful not to impede his development.

Seattle finished tied for 29th with 213 goals during its expansion year and there has been an emphasis on improving its anemic attack throughout the preseason and the initial stages of the regular season, but actions aren’t aligning with the messaging. Through five games, the Kraken are on pace for 230 goals, an improvement that reads more like a rounding error than tangible progress.

Wright is the face of the franchise. Seattle has to start treating him like he’s the offensive prodigy that he’s been advertised as, or send him down to the juniors where he can light his contemporaries aflame. Sitting in the middle is an outcome that is harmful to both parties and the Kraken have to be deliberate or run the risk of severely denting their top prospect’s development.

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