Shane Wright taking on ‘generational’ expectations as the NHL’s top draft prospect

NHL

Shane Wright remembers the first arm he was asked to autograph.

“It was a forearm. I’ve signed a couple of them, actually,” he said. “Signing people’s skin has been a little weird for me.”

Wright, 17, is a center for the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. He’s also the consensus pick to go first overall in the 2022 NHL draft. An autograph on a forearm would seem like a precursor to permanence: It’s possible someone would turn that signature into a tattoo, in honor of the NHL’s next young star.

“I don’t know about that,” said Wright, with a laugh. “I hope no one goes that far.”

That fanatic attention comes with the territory. Wright was 15 years old when he first saw himself on a hockey card, the same age at which he was granted “exceptional player” status into the OHL for the 2019-20 season. He was the sixth player ever granted that early admission into the league, joining names like John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid, whose rookie points-per-game record he shattered with 66 points in 58 games.

So the fans want Wright to sign their cards, the posters, their sticks, their jerseys — and on occasion, their limbs.

“It’s definitely weird,” he said.

There have been 55 players taken first overall in the NHL draft. Of those, 40 were forwards. Of those, 29 were Canadian like Wright, a native of Burlington, Ontario.

If the projections are accurate, Wright is about to join that exclusive club. He’s already experiencing all the weirdness that comes with it.

“Players deal with it in different ways. It’s not just the notoriety. It’s how people start to pick you apart a little bit too,” said Craig Button, the venerable prospect analyst for TSN. “At the heart of it, he’s 17 years old. I think the hardest thing for them is the criticism.”

The criticism has been unavoidable for Wright. The speculation about his slow — within context — offensive start to the 2021-22 OHL season. Or the fans and pundits who have taken apart his game in search of a player worthy of “first overall” status.

“There’s a lot of media attention and people saying different things. It can be a little overwhelming at times. But I try to tune that out as best as possible. At the end of the day, it’s just outside noise. It’s not set in stone or anything that truly matters to me. It’s just what people say,” he told ESPN recently.

What they’ve said: “Even though he’s only 16 years old and not NHL draft-eligible until 2022, he’s already drawn comparisons to Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and John Tavares — the ‘next ones’ that came before him,” wrote Josh Wegman at The Score last year.

Is Wright the next Crosby?

“I’m sure he’s heard the Crosby comparison. I’ve even been asked about it: ‘He’s a lower-case Crosby, right?’ And I’m like no, stop it. Stop comparing these kids to Crosby. It’s not fair. There’s no way you’re not going to go and watch these kids and be like, ‘He’s not Crosby.’ He doesn’t need to be Crosby,” Button said.

“Luckily, Shane has a maturity on the ice and off the ice to see things through a clearer lens.”


The template

The Crosby comparisons are unavoidable for a player with Wright’s skills and intangibles, but he hasn’t helped himself by mimicking some of the Pittsburgh Penguins star’s idiosyncrasies.

Crosby had the dryer that he dented up with pucks as a teenager. The Wrights had a garage door ripped to shreds and turned into Swiss cheese by Shane’s shooting practice.

Crosby has a fixation on the No. 87, as he was born on Aug. 7, 1987. It’s the number he wears on his jersey, as well as the cap hit on his past two NHL contracts ($8.7 million). Wright wears No. 51 because his father was inspired by Crosby’s numerology: Wright was born on Jan. 5.

“When I was in minor hockey, the numbers only went up to 17. I wanted a different number, so I went with No. 51 over No. 15,” Wright said

Crosby now owns the No. 87.

“There’s not a lot of No. 51’s in the NHL,” Wright noted.

Wright was a Crosby fan growing up. “It was just the way he played. He’s such a smart player. He made his teammates better. And he was such a great leader as well, always showing up in those big moments, in those big games. I loved watching him. I still love watching him,” Wright said.

Crosby sent an autographed photo to Wright through his agent. “All the best … keep working hard,” read the inscription.

“He’s a role model for me,” Wright said.

Yet Wright didn’t pattern his game after Crosby. Rather, he looked to Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron as his template.

“He thinks the game at such a high level. He can get points, but he takes care of his own end very well,” Wright said. “Sid is such an incredible player. He’s that god-level player. He and Bergeron have such similar games, but Bergeron is more the attainable [talent]. Not taking anything away from him. But Crosby’s more the god-level, and Bergeron’s more the attainable player.”

Bergeron has 940 points in 1,168 NHL games, having hit the 30-goal mark six times. He’s been a finalist for the Selke Trophy for 10 straight seasons, winning the award four times. Becoming the next Bergeron would be something to which a young player should aspire.

But the Bruins center was taken 45th overall in 2003. Wright is likely a No. 1 overall pick, a spot that produces more Hart Trophy winners than Selke winners.

“The first thing I would say about Shane: You’re not going to get this spectacular flash and dash. I’m not saying that negatively. He’s just not a Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid type. That’s not who he is,” Button said. “But there are two things that have always stood out to me about Shane: The hockey sense is superb and the precision with which he plays the game. That’s why I’ve compared him more to a Patrice Bergeron.”

So what is a team getting if it drafts Wright?


Who is Shane Wright?

David St. Louis, head scout at Elite Prospects, offers this scouting report on Wright:

“Wright is a quick and very smart playmaker, who passes and repositions between defenders to create scoring chances and finishes them with quick releases. He projects as an effective defensive centerman. As he already plays an NHL type of game in junior, his transition to the top league should be easier than for most top prospects.”

He sees Wright as a different No. 1 overall pick that we’ve seen in either Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils or Alexis Lafrenière of the New York Rangers, in the sense that both were creative puck carriers while Wright’s best play might be away from the puck.

“It’s not that Wright lacks skills — he has plenty,” St. Louis said. “He projects as an above-average NHL skater and stick handler, but he prefers to make pacey give-and-goes and tic-tac-toe plays than to take defenders on one-on-one. When Wright gets the puck, he moves it quickly and repositions instantly to get it back in more space. And then he does it again, and again, until he creates a great scoring chance.”

His goal-scoring ability — “with a unique, short-draw release that continues to surprise goalies,” St. Louis said — is his greatest offensive attribute. His passing should continue to improve over time, while his defensive game has many of the qualities that go along with being a shutdown NHL center.

But if there are questions about his game, it would be the lack of that inherent “flashiness” that we expect from a first overall pick.

“Even if we respect his style of play, his desire to connect with teammates and hunt space, we would still like to see more flash out of him, more ‘special’ plays. We would like him to be more assertive, to overwhelm the defense with his multiple skills, even if it’s just occasionally. It would show us that he is capable of it,” St. Louis said. “That, if he has to, he can pull off a great dangle to get out of trouble and create a scoring chance for a teammate or himself.”

Among recent draft class first overall picks, St. Louis said he and Elite Prospects would have Wright ranked sixth as far as hype and effectiveness of play heading into their drafts, ahead of only Nico Hischier of the Devils (2017) but behind both Lafrenière and Hughes. But while both of those players haven’t found sustained success at the next level St. Louis is bullish on Wright as an NHL-ready prospect.

“His play will scale up to the NHL more directly. It doesn’t mean that he is a better prospect, just that he could adapt faster,” he said.

That says nothing of his intangibles, which Button says helps set Wright apart.

“He’s a killer. When it comes time to put it away, I’m telling you, he’s a killer,” Button said. “He’s a great competitor.”

Which is why the past year was hard on Wright, when he was unable to compete in the OHL.


The lost season

Wright broke McDavid’s points per game record in 2019-20 when the OHL ended its season on March 18, 2020, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He looked forward to his second season with the Frontenacs … until the 2020-21 OHL season was entirely wiped away due to extended stay-at-home orders and increasing cases of COVID-19 in Ontario.

“We owe it to our players and their families to be definitive. We were committed to return and play this season, but our hopes and desires have been dashed by the cruel realities of COVID-19,” OHL Commissioner David Branch announced in April 2021.

As a result, Wright didn’t play a game in the OHL from March 8, 2020, until Oct. 8, 2021, when the current season began.

Wright, like many players, is a creature of habit. He tried to replicate the structure of his hockey routine while his season was paused: Skating at the same time, working out at the same time, even eating the same meals every day at the same times.

“I trained. I worked out in the gym almost every day. I went on the ice. I went on rollerblades. Just did whatever I could to stay in shape. There’s nothing that can replicate playing the game. You can get close to replicating it with scrimmages. But it never really replicates it,” Wright said. “Definitely difficult to keep myself motivated with a year and a half of no games.”

He missed his teammates. He missed his time at the rink with them, sharing inside jokes and just hanging around. “It’s something that I really love now that it’s back,” Wright said. “It’s amazing to have it back. You never imagine what it’s like to be away from hockey for a year and a half. To be back here, around my teammates and playing games again … it’s the greatest feeling.”

That missed season has been blamed by some for Wright’s “slow” start to the 2021-22 campaign, a start that “has some pundits suggesting the Kingston star might fall in the draft,” wrote Josh Brown of the Toronto Star.

“That suggestion is a pretty bold take that has stirred up social media. Wright simply falling to second overall would be major news,” Brown wrote.

Wright has seen that speculation in the media and the criticism on social media about his output.

“If you see something on there, you can’t really take it to heart. There are people out there saying things that have way too much time on their hands. It’s someone saying it with nothing else better to do,” said Wright, who now has 30 points in his 22 games in the OHL this season. “I can’t control what people are going to say about me. Or post about me. Or the rankings. I try my best not to focus on that, but at the same time it’s obviously something I’m aware of.”

He’s also aware of the NHL standings, as the prize of this season’s draft lottery.

The #PainForShane hashtag has seen every fan base from the Montreal Canadiens to the New York Islanders hoping their disastrous seasons result in a lottery ball bouncing their way.

“It’s something in the back of my mind. But I try my best not to pay attention. Whoever finishes last is out of my control. And there’s still lots of time before the draft,” he said.

Those fans will get a good glimpse of Wright at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton, where he’ll play for Team Canada with 2021 first overall pick defenseman Owen Power of Michigan and 16-year-old forward Connor Bedard, the projected first overall pick in 2023.

“Whatever expectations are put on him, he exceeds them. He reminds me of Steve Yzerman,” said Button of Bedard.

Wright isn’t expected to be the next Yzerman. Nor the next McDavid, nor the next Crosby. He may not end up being a player whose signature is worthy of an arm tattoo.

He’s Shane Wright. And from what Button has seen, that should be enough.

“Generational players don’t come along very often. I don’t see Shane as generational. We don’t call Patrice Bergeron generational, either. Doesn’t mean he’s not a great player,” he said.

“I’ve seen all the players in next year’s draft. There’s not a better player than Shane Wright.”

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