Inside the NHL

The latest step in the development plan for top Kraken draft pick Shane Wright was to begin Tuesday night in Calgary, Alberta, as he suited up for the Coachella Valley Firebirds.

Wright is starting a onetime, two-week conditioning stint for the Kraken’s new AHL affiliate against the Calgary Wranglers, part of a plan to get the teenager some minor professional experience to which he isn’t ordinarily entitled. A longstanding agreement mandates that all NHL draftees from major junior hockey teams that are 18 or 19 must be returned to those squads in lieu of the AHL if they fail to stick at the top pro level.

So, lacking the option to send Wright, 18, to the AHL automatically, they seized upon a loophole allowing the onetime conditioning stint for any NHL player who is a healthy scratch in five consecutive games.

“It’s a great, great opportunity for him to go out and play some real valuable minutes at a high level in an important role,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said Tuesday. 

For some, this will be greeted as a negative fork in Wright’s development path; a concession that the No. 4 overall choice from last summer’s draft should have been playing NHL games all along or returned to his Kingston Frontenacs junior team. Others will drop the doom and gloom for a minute and reflect on what else is happening: A teenager getting to train and grow alongside NHL players instead of same-age peers — a Kraken group, it must be said, that is creating quite the positive environment around Wright by sporting a top-10 record. 

Indeed, the Kraken entered Tuesday at 10-5-3, tied with Tampa Bay for the league’s seventh-best mark and sitting third in the Pacific Division. That they are 9-2-2 against playoff teams from last season is also a sign this push toward playoff contention just might continue through next spring.

Advertising

And winning is never a bad thing in pro sports. 

Yes, even when that winning might be limiting the chances of your top prospect suiting up for games. Some have expressed disappointment that the Kraken are actually putting out their best lineup nightly in an attempt to win games, rather than forcing Wright in there more often at the expense of more deserving players. 

For me it’s a mind-boggling sentiment. 

But it also fits within an interesting thought process I’ve seen emerging the past decade or so among fans in various sports that would prefer their teams underperform near-term to better their chances at long-term success.

This is where the “tanking” movement comes from, with fans — and allegedly even some team owners — preferring to lose as big as possible to garner a higher draft pick at season’s end. I could grasp that sentiment when the Mariners in 2008 might have helped themselves by losing two of three at home to the awful Oakland Athletics on the season’s final weekend to land the No. 1 overall pick and select Stephen Strasburg instead of settling for Dustin Ackley.

But that sentiment, like seemingly everything else in our daily existence, is now being taken to extremes.

Now, you’ve got fans demanding teams such as the Montreal Canadiens or Philadelphia Flyers stop playing .500 hockey six weeks into the season to “tank” the next five months for some next great teenage draft prospect.

Advertising

Last weekend I saw similar versions of the “tanking” mentality surface in two non-hockey sports via online fan comments. In one case, a Toronto Argonauts fan lamented his team winning the CFL’s Grey Cup title because he felt it lessened the chance of them getting a different starting quarterback that might use the squad’s talented receivers better in order to win future championships.

In a less-severe case, a question was put out online to local NFL fans about whether they’d rather the Seahawks lose to the Las Vegas Raiders this weekend — bettering the Raiders’ chances to finish ahead of Denver and potentially improve a first-round draft pick the Seahawks are owed by the Broncos in the Russell Wilson deal.

Both premises are laughable. First, the Seahawks are fighting for the best playoff spot possible and are in no position to throw games away.

In the CFL case? One commenter immediately chided the Argonauts fan, saying a championship bird in the hand is better than two potential future ones in the bush.

All this is to say, the Kraken sacrificing present-day results on the altar of Wright’s playing time because some feel they won’t make the playoffs anyway is probably a great formula for ruining the team’s future hopes.

After all, there’s the whole winning attitude thing. Hakstol, for one, feels Wright’s development is best served playing in an environment where “a team is finding success and you’re a big part of that.

Advertising

“You know, whether it’s game action or not, every guy in that room is a big part of it,” Hakstol added. “And I feel the exact same way about Shane.”

Some of the veteran players in that Kraken locker room will be critical to helping Wright develop within their group to where he can someday lead them. Want to ruin that dynamic? Start showing Wright undue favoritism. Start playing him over guys such as Morgan Geekie, Daniel Sprong or any other Kraken player who has earned a lineup spot based on recent play. 

Wright will get his chance. Right now it’s in the AHL for two weeks. After that it might be on a loan to Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships. Then perhaps the Kraken decide to keep him all season in whatever capacity they see fit. 

Arizona Coyotes draft pick Logan Cooley, a centerman drafted one spot ahead of Wright at No. 3 overall, has played a grand total of 13 games — six more than Wright — against amateurs for the University of Minnesota this season. Yet, nobody, rightfully, is fretting about how Cooley’s development might have already been ruined. 

Wright’s attitude regarding the Kraken’s plan has, by all accounts, been great. The team got a positive report from Firebirds coach Dan Bylsma about Wright after his initial AHL practice Monday. Kraken general manager Ron Francis plans to see Wright play in San Diego on Saturday. 

Developing Wright was never going to amount to a choice between him and his team’s present-day play. It was always going to be a tightrope between easing him into the squad and maximizing the Kraken’s potential right now. 

So far, the Kraken are maxing out on theirs. This AHL stint for Wright will be his latest chance to continue earning a chance to show what he can do.