October 02 2013 11:31PM
The Jets beat an old rival last night in their first ever season-opening win. In that light, it's poor form to focus on the negative. Believe it or not, that isn't my intention in the post below.
Instead, I mean to start an investigation into the vexing James Wright. In some circles, it can be hard to say his very name without sounding like you're piling on the Jets' newest whipping boy. Still, some media analysts and, in point of fact, the team's highly remunerated head coach, seem to believe in James Wright as a 7th man. In September, a talk radio analyst said he could move around the lineup and even into the top 6. In a clumsy, but ultimately winning effort last night, James Wright was given 24 shifts and the third most even strength ice time among forwards (behind only Kane and Scheifele). Meanwhile, he had the worst corsi % among forwards at a stunning 26.3% - meaning the ice was tilted against the Jets such that 3 out of every 4 shot attempts taken with him on the ice were against the Jets.
Below I've taken apart one of Wright's shifts - his last in the second period. Eventually, I'd like to see what it is that Claude Noel does. For now, I'll start with what I see.
38 Seconds of Terror
Now, in choosing one shift, I've strongly framed the outcome of our analysis. I don't mean this shift to represent all there is to James Wright. This isn't a definitive post but a starting point. I've chosen this shift because it typifies a number of things I see as constant in James Wright's game. This is how I see James Wright - a starting point for this project.
Let's start with this shift in its entirety. For anyone who hasn't had their coffee yet, Wright is #17 and plays left wing. (Apologies for the somewhat poor quality of the video. Frame rates! AmIright?)
There are a few ways we can break this shift down. I'm going to do it by play types.
At the 10 second mark, this line enters the offensive zone with control. Wright has the puck on his off-wing, 3 on 3. In one second of video, a lot happens. Frolik (F2) drives the net as Wright continues down the boards. Jokinen (F3) goes to the middle slot. It's not a creative play for Jokinen, but he's likely reading that Wright has no pressure on that side lane and doesn't need vertical support. Wright has a number of plays available at this moment:
This is his choice:
Now, this is clearly not a shot to score. It may be a practiced play off the pads to Frolik, or the result of coaching to 'get the puck on net' for the bottom six. In a vacuum, there's not much to criticize, and I'm sure Don Cherry's version of hockey is ringing in all our brains. "Good things happen when you get it on net!"
But look closely at where Wright's linemates are, and where the opposition is. Ference (21) is the strong side defenceman, and we know as well as Wright that the aggressive Oiler swarm will force Wright's hand before he can get to the Ford logo. Still, in this moment, the Oilers have box-out position on each of Jokinen and Frolik, there is no immediate back pressure on Wright, and Ference is more than a stick length away. The likelihood that the Jets get on this rebound is zero. The pressure to make a play right at this moment is also zero. Wright could stop up, put it behind the net for Frolik, or in the opposite corner for Jokinen. He could take the hit in the corner to play it back to the Jets defence - a group that combined for 8 points against an Oiler defence that brings all five defenders below the hashmarks.
Without choosing the best option for him - he's a professional hockey player with professional coaches after all - we can at least say that this choice shows a lack of awareness for what's happening around him.
Worse, he hit Ference with the shot. Turnover - with both his linemates driving the net.
Wright's shift starts in the neutral zone, defending the Oilers' transition. The camera doesn't show us why, but he starts on his off-wing. He tracks the active Oiler in the middle lane after Jokinen releases him, and then moves over to the wing where the puck goes. Again, we don't know his orders, so we'll call that a success.
Strangely, in a possible three-on-two in which he's the first forward back, he takes this angle on the Oiler attacker:
That angle is called 'straight on' and it doesn't require a degree in geometry to know that Wright misses any sort of play on the puck, and more importantly, fails to close off his opponent's options so that Postma (4) could make a play on the puck. In his defence, Joensuu (6) never gets control of the pass and Postma challenges successfully even without the support.
As noted, Wright has a successful zone entry to conclude his time in the NZ.
Now, back to the moment Ference blocks his shot. This is how it looks in the next moment:
The puck is caught in Ference's feet, he chooses to play body while Wright fishes for the puck.
And just like that, the only forward who wasn't being checked closely when the shot was taken is now the last forward in defensive transition.
The Oilers have taken their shot on net by the time Wright re-enters our frame. The Jets have begun to isolate the puck carrier (or attempted carrier, Eberle doesn't get his own strange bounce back). Wright might read the open space on his wing (the lower right space of the picture above), and he does sort of float toward there. Again, we don't know his orders when 4 Jets are so low already, so he gets a pass on his defensive work here.
The Jets' get the puck back and they begin to break out on Wright's side. Time to shine, Wright! Right?
Here's how the play develops. That's Frolik (67) swooping in to get the puck as Postma (4) chases Eberle (14) away from the play. Jokinen is winding up to be the second outlet pass, and very obviously, the play is coming to Wright's side.
This is the lane he chooses.
This is the depth he chooses - by which I mean how far away from the play he chooses to be.
And this is where he is when Frolik fires it into Gordon's (27) shin pads trying to get it to Jokinen (out of frame) at the "NHL Faceoff 2013" logo just inside the Jets' blue line.
That's his breakout side. He didn't go to the boards, instead floating backward through a dangerous area of the ice and into a check, then stayed with that check as his teammate ran out of options.
The loose puck causes some scrumming around Wright that is arguably not his to deal with, though he's not much help either. But in the end, he gets the puck along the boards with so much space it might as well be practice:
You can confirm in the video above, Gordon (out of frame) is making a change at the blue line behind Wright, and giving no pressure. Once again on this shift, Wright has no pressure to make a play. You can also hear (32 second mark) a swinging Frolik (67) yelling 'centre, centre,' audible even over the fire alarm and to the broadcast microphones. James Wright heard it. And he chipped the puck up the boards:
A moment later, Frolik attacked the Oiler defender and deflected his attempted pass into the benches. Wright's shift was finally over.
Too many pictures
This is a 38 second shift in which James Wright touched the puck twice without pressure, and the Jets lost possession both times to sub-optimal plays. It's a shift in which Wright makes two poor defensive plays (bad angle in the neutral zone, getting trapped deep on his own turnover), and is the singular reason the Jets lose possession on the breakout to his side. To my eye, that's 5 wrong decisions in fewer than 40 seconds of hockey.
As I stated at the top - this is what I see when I watch James Wright. He's a player who lacks awareness to the point of hurting his team. He does none of the 'little things' that analysts love to tell us win hockey games. On top of it, he certainly doesn't do the big things (scoring) or the pugilistic things (fighting) that often excuse players for being a bit fuzzy on the details.
We've seen his stats in aggregate, and watched him become a coach favourite over the course of last year. The Jets even traded Ponikarovsky just weeks into last season and gave Wright the job. I fully admit my bias at this point - I don't understand why he is on an NHL roster. But I'm also forced to admit that I don't know everything, and some learned hockey minds disagree.
So, my bias on my sleeve, please tell me in the comments if there is a way I should consider his game that would help me appreciate what Claude Noel sees. Or, alternatively, feel free to suggest questions about his game we can investigate as the season wears on.