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Salim Valji: Shane Wright acknowledges ‘growing pains’, welcomes chance to play at World Juniors

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This isn’t where Shane Wright envisioned his first National Hockey League season would take him, but he’s intent on making the most of it.

On Tuesday, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft made his American Hockey League debut with the Coachella Valley Firebirds, scoring a goal and drawing a penalty in about 13 minutes of action, playing mostly with Kole Lind and Ville Petman.

Wright is in the AHL on a two-week conditioning stint that he became eligible for after being a healthy scratch with the Seattle Kraken for five consecutive games. He has one assist in five NHL games this season.

“It’s always tough not being able to play and getting scratched and not being able to play a high-end role, but I think that’s just the reality of the situation,” Wright said.

“I’m an 18-year-old kid coming in to the NHL trying to learn my way, trying to learn those experiences in the NHL. It’s not going to happen right away. There’s going to be growing pains. There’s going to be a lot of development for me and I have to learn a lot of things from the coaches.”

Dan Bylsma, the Firebirds’ coach, is excited at the prospect of working with Wright.

“Coaching him is just giving him the chance to go out there and show what he can do and do it at his best,” Bylsma said.

“That’s just putting him on the ice and seeing how he can play. Right from practice on Monday to the game last night, he showed immediately what he can do with his speed and tenacity on the puck.”

Bylsma chatted with Kraken general manager Ron Francis and head coach Dave Hackstol about the organization’s plan for him.

“We all know he’s a great player,” Bylsma said. “We all know he’s got skill and talent, and [it’s] just giving him that opportunity to get on the ice and show it…it’s all about playing him in all those spots, offensive zone, defensive zone, getting him the chance to be in each one of those situations.”

Wright’s assignment from the Kraken is simple.

“Just go out and play hockey,” he said, of their instructions to him.

“Just go out and build that confidence again. Don’t worry about results. Don’t worry about how many points you get or whatever that is, just go out, get touches, get your confidence up, and just go out and play hockey and have fun.”

There are broader questions surrounding Wright.

His conditioning stint ends after 14 days or when he plays five games. He is unsure of the Kraken’s plans for him after his time in the AHL. A return to the Ontario Hockey League is a possibility. The Kingston Frontenacs, where Wright played for two seasons, hold his OHL rights.

The Burlington, Ont. native is also eligible for the upcoming World Juniors, and would welcome the opportunity to represent Canada.

“Any time you have a chance to play for your country at the World Juniors, it’s something that you grow up watching on TV, it’s always a decision that’s really hard to pass up,” he said.

“At this moment, I don’t know what that plan is. Obviously, it’s up to Seattle and what they choose to do with me and where they want me to play.”

Bylsma acknowledged the pressure his new protégé has been under since Wright gained Exceptional Player status in the OHL in 2019, allowing him to get drafted into the league earlier.

“Shane’s had the eyes of the world on him for a long time now, not just with the draft last year and coming into this year,” Bylsma said.

“He’s felt that and lives with that and I think I’m just trying to guide him through that. He just needs to go out and play to his capabilities and not worry about what everyone’s looking at and everyone’s seeing, just go out and play the way he can.”

While his stint in the AHL will be short, Wright is aware of how it could help his development, and is not focusing too much on what will happen afterwards.

“They really just wanted me to come down here to Coachella and spend these two weeks here, enjoy it, build my confidence up, and worry about that decision later on,” Wright said.

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