It has all happened so fast. James Wright could easily wonder if this is all real.
He came to Lightning training camp as a 19-year-old, fourth-round pick, seemingly looking to make an impression for the future. About a month and a half later, he was in the starting lineup playing beside Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Wright said.
That was good enough. But what played out next was even better. Wright zipped to the net and knocked home a St. Louis pass into the net for his first NHL goal just 30 seconds into the Lightning’s 5-2 victory against San Jose last Thursday. Two nights later, he assisted on a Lecavalier goal.
This is not a dream. Wright has made it reality.
“He’s 19,” Lightning Head Coach Rick Tocchet said. “But you wouldn’t know it. He’s a very mature kid in his approach to the game. It’s a credit to his parents. He doesn’t get too high or too low. That’s what I like about him. He’s wide-eyed on the bench and he’s been a pleasure to coach.”
Wright has played in the first nine games. The Lightning has the option to send him back to his junior team, the Vancouver Giants, without losing one of the three years on his entry-level contract if he does not play his 10th. The 6-foot-3, 196-pounder, who can play wing or center, has just been taking it one day at a time.
Tocchet said Wright has not had a drop-off in his level of play, like many teenagers have after the initial emotion of playing in the NHL wears off, he has not hurt the team defensively, has been one of the team’s better fore-checkers, and his confidence is growing.
“He’s got a simple game plan that we’ve given him and he’s embraced it,” Tocchet said. “He’s good along the wall, fore-check, dog the puck, back check and get off the ice. We don’t need him to have a big playbook.”
Wright played the first seven games primarily with Jeff Halpern and Drew Miller in a checking role and killed penalties. The threesome was not on the ice for an even-strength goal against. Tocchet moved the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native with St. Louis and Lecavalier to do the work on the boards and go to the net.
“I thought he did a good job,” St. Louis said, after the San Jose triumph. “We just wanted him to stay simple, try not to play our game and just play his game. I thought he did that.”
Making the right play, something that had been worked on in practice throughout the week, on his first shift with the two all-stars couldn’t have helped more.
“Getting that goal right away took a lot of pressure off me playing with those two guys,” Wright said. “It helped my thought process, not worrying about scoring, just doing what I do, chipping pucks in and going to the net. I know those guys are so skilled, so I know that’s where the puck will end up.”
Wright, who won’t turn 20 until March 24, grew up playing on a backyard rink in Saskatoon, taking on every challenge. Throughout his junior career with Vancouver, which started with two games at the end of the 2005-06 season, he was not known as a big scorer, but he was recognized as a very smart player.
In his first full season, Wright helped the Giants win the 2007 Memorial Cup with his solid play alongside current NHL players like Milan Lucic, Evander Kane, Cody Franson and Brendan Mikkelson. Wright had two goals in the 8-1 semifinal victory over Plymouth.
Wright came back the following season to put up 13 goals and 23 assists in 60 games and was rated 48th overall by the Hockey News for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and 79th by the International Scouting Service. The Lightning were pleased to grab him in the fourth round at pick No. 117.
His improvement continued. Wright pushed his offensive output to 21 goals and 26 assists in the regular season and had 10 points in 17 playoff games. Unfortunately, injury kept him away from Lightning prospects camp in July.
Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton said he thought there was a possibility of a big surprise to make the team out of camp. Spots were open.
In stepped Wright. Because his game is not very flashy, it might seem hard for him to stand out. But Tocchet noticed.
“His will on the ice and his knowledge of the game opened my eyes,” Tocchet said. “We’re trying to build an identity on this team with our systems. When we ask him to do something, he does it. We need a lot of players like that.”
Wright has taken it all in stride.
“Coming into camp, I wanted to have a mindset that it was a tryout camp,” Wright said. “But obviously I felt, and I think a lot of people did, that I was a long shot. I just tried to have the best possible camp. I didn’t think I had much pressure on me because I wasn’t signed and I was a later draft pick. That allowed me to just go out there and play my game.”
Wright has a plus/minus rating of plus-2, without being a minus for any of his nine games. He has just four penalty minutes, averaging 21 shifts per game.
“He took the opportunity and went with it,” Tocchet said. “If we didn’t have those extra exhibition games, he might not have played. There’s a guy that just knocked the door down.”