Shane Wright’s game : in-depth breakdown
Perceived as the 1st overall pick for 3 years already, it is certainly not the discussions that have been lacking surrounding Shane Wright this season. Very clever whoever could have predicted that this player would have been so polarizing.
This is a common phenomenon that we have seen over the past few seasons, where suddenly, the player deemed to get selected first OA does not become so unanimous. This was the case in 2020 with Alexis Lafrenière, in 2019 with Jack Hughes, in 2016 with Auston Matthews and we could continue for a long time.
What’s different about Shane Wright’s situation is that; of 1) the questioning about his place at the top of this draft started much earlier than the examples given where it was only in the last two months that it began to be hypothesized that another player could come out at the very top of the draft. And 2) unlike those players, Wright’s first overall pick status wasn’t jeopardized by the rise of a rival (Stuzle, Kakko, Laine), but rather, because his game began to raise several questions.
Some criticism of the player can be attributed directly to his play style, so let’s start by breaking down this player and looking at where criticism might arise.
Earning ‘Exceptional player status’, Wright made his OHL debut at age 15 in the 2019-20 season. Having watched this league very closely, I had the chance to observe Wright on many occasions and my observation was that, then aged 15, he was already superior to Quinton Byfield aged 17, who was playing his 2nd season in the OHL (as well as his draft season).
Let’s transport ourselves to this season. Aiming to get an idea of many of the players in the draft, it was only around mid-November that I started watching Wright’s games.
At this point, several doubts had already been disclosed in the public square concerning him.
However, Wright’s identity was already well established and he is not a player who has been wrongly elevated to such status as some players have been in the past because of a tournament or two (hello Aatu Raty).
A 6’01 right-handed center, Wright has an understanding of the game and a defensive propensity that is rarely matched for a player of his age.
To benefit from this aura of a first overall pick, a player must show dynamic traits and qualities that will make him a future Game-Breaker.
If we focus on what makes him exciting as a player, we must start with his shooting. He has, in my eyes, the best shot in the draft and when I take into consideration the consistency factors and the ability to be able to shoot on the move, it’s not particularly close. Joakim Kemell could rival him when it comes to shooting, but he has shown inconsistencies that are too hard to ignore at this level. Wright’s shot is unique in terms of velocity and release. Not only does the puck leave his blade at an astonishing speed, but it is very difficult for a goalie to read when it is going to leave his stick because he releases without any momentum and he does it while the puck is very close to his body. Also, he does not continue the motion of his shot with his stick after releasing. Chances are if you blink, you won’t even see it.
Another aspect that makes Wright’s shot elite is the coordination he demonstrates to shoot while in movement. When I mention shooting while being in movement, I am referring to the play of his feet as he releases his shot. He manages to do it within his own skating stride. Even very high-level shooters do not have this nuance in their repertoire and will rather have to let themselves glide when they take their shot. The best prospect in recent years at this precise quality was Jack Quinn. Always in the perspective of shooting when in motion, the consistency of Wright’s execution remains the same regardless of the flank from which he comes, which is another extremely rare quality. Considering the mechanical changes involved in having to shoot from different places while his body isn’t always angled the same way towards the net, it’s remarkable to see the consistency in Wright’s shooting technique.
His qualities as a playmaker on the power play surprised me on more than one occasion. Like his shot, his passes are very crisp and are made while he leaves no clue to his opponents about what he is about to achieve. Two of the criteria I like to look at when judging a player’s game-making skills are whether they are able to be ‘Deceptive’ and how easily they can pass the puck through the opposing team’s defensive box. Wright meets both criteria very easily. The ‘deceptive’ element mainly occurs when he fakes that he will take a wrist shot by placing all the weight of his body on one leg and having his gaze as well as his shoulders and hips straight towards the opposing net to finally pass to a teammate directly through the defensive box. He is at his most dangerous in this facet when he operates from the top of the right circle, where he has the opportunity to be able to take his course and sell the threat of a shot even more. I saw him make passes that very few players in the NHL could have completed. With the quality of the plays, I’ve seen him orchestrate for his teammates as well as the threat his shot poses, he’s possibly the most threatening player in this draft with the man advantage.
However, the predominant quality of Shane Wright remains without a shadow of a doubt his intelligence on the ice. His sense of anticipation is among the highest I have had the chance to see. This is accentuated by the fact that his understanding of the game and his positioning are flawless. It’s rare for a prospect’s play without the puck to draw so much praise, but watching Wright break down the opposing team’s offense and anticipate their every move in advance is almost as fascinating as watching a highlights reel of the most beautiful plays of the week. It’s literally as if he sees the games a step or two ahead of his opponents. He is always in the right place to intercept a pass in the defensive zone or in the neutral zone.
Defensively, he is a master in the art of stealing the puck from opposing players with his stick during defensive backcheck.
His positioning is also flawless, he recognizes situations where his defensemen need help in front of the net or along the boards. Having him on the ice in such situations is almost as if his team had 3 defensemen. His defensive game is truly elite and we can very easily project him as one of the best 2-way centers of his generation.
By virtue of what has just been presented, why have so many criticisms surfaced?
You’ll notice I didn’t mention Wright’s puck handling or skating in the positive aspects of his game. Don’t worry, those are definitely not weaknesses either.
However, I find that these are not qualities that stand out for the simple reason that Wright prefers to rely on his hockey intelligence.
His handling of the puck isn’t sexy at first glance, but his hands are dynamic and reactive enough to be able to eliminate a player if necessary if the latter tries to poke check him, but rarely will he decide for himself to get rid of the first layer of defense by outmaneuvering a player or two along the way. Even in tight spaces, he is not so resourceful in getting rid of a player, he prefers to position his body as to protect the puck and then pass it to a teammate who is in a less precarious position, for example a defenseman at the blue line. A player of his caliber and pedigree should be able to create offense in many ways, especially when it’s something that ends up in the player’s arc. For example, Cole Perfetti, Lucas Raymond and Kent Johnson are recent draft prospects who were able to create scoring chances with their hands alone.
It is the same observation that can be made with his skating. Without showing any mechanical flaws, there is nothing exciting about Wright’s skating and he does nothing to promote it. However, just like his hands, when the moment is right, he demonstrates an impressive force of acceleration. On turnovers in the neutral zone by the other team, he can change gears to hurry to take advantage of the blunder to leave in a two-on-one situation. I also saw him catch Jan Mysak on a breakaway when the latter already had a few strides ahead. Overall, I would still prefer to see him be more assertive with his speed and see him try to cause mistakes from the opposing team rather than just seeing him be reactive.
Playing at different paces/speed is often a gauge on which I assess players’ hockey intelligence. There are several examples of very fast players who are not able to slow down the game to their advantage and who seem unable to process information at the same speed as they are skating. Wright is the antithesis of that, he would have the necessary skating ability to push back opposing defenders, but he prefers to slow down the game. That said, he does it effectively.
If you had not deduced it with these last two passages, Wright is, paradoxically, a victim of his (too) great maturity on the ice.
I have never (or almost) seen Wright make turnovers. He never forces a pass lane, he always identifies the right lanes when carrying the puck, never tries to do too much, etc. However, it hurts him in a way, because it greatly limits the ‘it’ (or wow) factor that we look for in a player of his caliber.
His offensive game is based above all on intelligence and he is a player who is focused on collective play. He involves his teammates a lot in the action. This hurts him a little, because we would like to see him take matters into his own hands, but also, because he does not play with very high caliber teammates. He has played with Martin Chromiak in several games that I have seen and although talented, I do not find him to be a smart player on the ice (he is overrated as far as I am concerned). At 5 on 5, when Wright passes to one of his teammates while entering the offensive zone, the puck rarely comes back to him. We are entitled to expect him to make his wingers better, but it still allows us to see things from a different perspective.
It would be nice to see him bolder in his game, but on the other side, a lot of very talented prospects hit a wall when they got to the pros and had to change the way they play and learned it the hard way. Wright won’t. It will also be easier to appreciate the maturity of his game.
The criticisms (in the first half of the season) came mostly because of his disappointing offensive production and it’s a narrative that could easily have been different if his teammates had been able to complete his plays a little more often. I’ve seen several games where he could have legitimately finished 3-4 pts higher if his linemates hadn’t missed open nets.
One of the gripes I agree with is that Wright’s level of compete-level in puck battles doesn’t come close to being enough. It’s not something I expected to see this season, as he was always very detail-oriented and always showed an impeccable work ethic. It is a ‘red flag’ which is relatively large in scope and should not be ignored. Normally, you expect to see top prospects driven by a burning desire to be the best on the ice. That hasn’t been the case for Wright this season. I haven’t seen him take over a game on his own, even on any given shift, it was rare where he was simply dominant. It’s worrying and we have to mention it because even a prospect like Nico Hischier in 2017 managed to win games on his own for his team. What bothered me the most is that the media coverage Wright receives is well documented and his criticisms have most likely reached his ears. In light of that I expected it to have reignited the flame in him for the 2nd half of the season, and despite increased offensive production, the player’s level of combativeness remained well below what we would have liked him to display.
Wright is mostly a victim of the inflated expectations that have been placed on him. Yes, there are some quirks about his game, but the fact that he is not an exceptional player should not tarnish the player’s appreciation. Much like Owen Power last year, he is a player whose ceiling and floor of his potential are not separated by a very large gap.
Is it fair that he is judged more harshly because of his status? Yes and no. I’m willing to concede that I’m more critical on top prospects myself, because when you’re drafting this high, you have every right to expect a player who will change your franchise. But at some point, the relentless criticism of him (albeit true) was nothing new and seemed more attention-seeking than anything. It is true that a lack of competitiveness is unforgivable, but at the latest news, the other prospects are not perfect either and we have not seen them judged with the same intransigence.
Is Shane Wright worthy of a first overall pick? Due to his play this season, the answer would be no, however, no other players have shown to have the makings of a first-pick overall. Although the criticisms towards the player (the lack of fire and urgency in his game as well as the dependence on his wingers to create chances) are completely legitimate (and believe me, they worry me too), if Wright turns on the ‘switch’ he is unquestionably the best player in this draft. As far as I’m concerned, I believe that the player was already anticipating his presence in the NHL and that he adjusted his game accordingly, minimizing the risks on the ice and playing a more structured game. Although my level of patience with him has hit rock bottom on a few occasions, I believe the challenge of playing in the NHL will force him to show us the best he has to offer.
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