Wright's Story Isn't Over
Each preseason, hockey fans are gripped by a story of an underdog roster candidate forcing his way onto an NHL club. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Brett Connolly and college free agent Cory Conacher have dominated headlines early this fall at the Lightning's training camp in that respect. While Conacher was eventually moved to the AHL, Connolly's chances to stick with the Lightning continue to increase.
He's this year's preseason story.
In 2004, that story was Dmitri Afanasenkov, who went from a longshot to make the team to playing in the last minute of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Two seasons ago, the story was James Wright. A two-way center out of WHL Vancouver, he was just one year removed from hearing his name at the draft and was too young to be sent to the AHL.
Despite the odds, Wright made the team and even found himself skating alongside Vincent Lecavalier for some shifts. Eventually, Wright hit the proverbial wall and was sent back to the WHL with 48 games of NHL experience and a wallet full of cash. The first year of his entry contract was in the books.
Now Wright is in the third year of that contract - the final year.
He has played one NHL game in the two years since that 48-game stint, coming in November last season. He finished scoreless and minus-2 in the Lightning's wild 8-7 win over Philadelphia, arguably the most memorable game of the regular season.
Wright played in 80 games for the AHL Norfolk Admirals in 2010-2011, accumulating 16 goals and 31 assists for 47 points, including a hat trick against Binghamton in March.
When Wright was with the Lightning, the developing forward played a defensive role. Part of the reason Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman sent him to Norfolk last season was they didn't want to slot him as a defense-only player; they wanted him to develop his offensive game, too. He wouldn't get the ice time for that opportunity in Tampa.
"I just took the opportunity that was given to me," Wright told BoltProspects. "Obviously, I didn't make the team (last year) and that's what I wanted to do out of camp and I wasn't able to do that. So I just used that prominent role in Norfolk, which I got, playing more power play, penalty kill, and the ice time that I wouldn't be getting (in Tampa).
"I tried to use that to develop my skills and develop as a player."
He started well in that department, registering at least a point in his first four games, but over his last 45 he only had one goal in three games, though one was his hat trick. According to the Lightning coaching staff, Wright was plagued with a knee injury during that time, but he didn't miss any games. That news was kept out of the media.
"It was a tough year for him last year," Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher told BoltProspects. "First of all, other guys had been better than him in training camp. We're fair about our assessment."
Boucher said the staff was united in their opinion that Wright be sent down.
"We felt like going to the American League, he could learn to do more things than if he stayed here on the fourth line, so we did that," Boucher said. "But, what happened to him is he got injured last year and he had knee problems the entire season so it prevented him from getting better. This year he's trying to get through his knee problems still so it's tough for him and he's battling that mentally."
Boucher was hopeful Wright could earn a spot in a preseason game and stick around the big club this year. The staff evidentially agreed as Wright was the only Norfolk player put in the Lightning's veteran locker room at its training camp in Brandon, Florida.
Just a week after Boucher said he hoped Wright could show enough to stay with the club he was sent to Norfolk's camp without appearing in an NHL preseason game.
Because he's tasted the NHL, Wright is craving to get back to it full-time and knows what it takes to get there. It's a matter of him being physically and mentally ready to do so. He never used his knee as an excuse, instead focusing on the work that has to be done.
"I just have to work on all aspects of my game," he said. "I know I can improve on a lot of things as a player so I think I just have to personally work on defensive play and offense as well."
It's that kind of maturity that makes him a valued veteran leader with the Admirals, despite the fact he's competing with a lot of its players for depth chart position. Wright said several prospects sought his advice in rookie and prospect camps this summer and he was the go-between for the players and coaches in many instances.
On the ice he's off to a good start in 2011-2012 as he had two assists in Norfolk's first preseason game on Thursday. If the Admirals are going to advance beyond the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs this year, they'll need a healthy James Wright leading the charge.
Wright will be happy to be that kind of a leader in the AHL this year, but his goal remains to get back to the NHL.
The final chapter of his story has yet to be written.
(Tampa Bay Lightning photo)