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Making the most of opportunities

Wright proving he belongs in the NHL

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A curious fact, near the end of this Jets training camp: Of all the players who have laced up skates, only two have played more than four games.

To wit: James Wright and Anthony Peluso, both plucked off of waivers last season, have figured into five of the squad's six pre-season tilts thus far. That's more than any prospect, or any star, but after practice on Wednesday coach Claude Noel offered few details.

"Some of it's experience," he said. "Some things come up, if you've got injuries at certain positions... those are things behind the scenes. So there's different factors."

'I want to contribute to this team where they see fit. But I see myself as trying to push to be in the top nine forwards'

-- James Wright

Whatever thoughts skate through the coach's mind, Wright must keep his focused on just one: every minute is an opportunity, and this pre-season he's had many. He started last season playing about eight minutes a game, then shot up to 15 near the middle of the shortened campaign. But in Edmonton on Monday, he played for 19 minutes and 12 seconds; in Minnesota two days before that, he played for over 20 minutes, just a hair more than Andrew Ladd.

That's about as much time as he played in his summer beer hockey league back in Saskatoon, Wright chuckled after practice on Wednesday, but here in the NHL pre-season it weighs heavier on the legs.

"I think so, there's a little bit of a change," he said, pulling off sock tape. "I'm sure it will wind down here... but it's been good."

It's made better by who is sharing that time. Last season, Wright got his start taking mostly defensive assignments, and later slid up to play with Olli Jokinen. In camp now he's slotted next to Mark Scheifele, and the winger nodded emphatically when asked about the prospect's creativity.

"Mark's a pretty special talent," Wright said of the guy who's fed him some pretty passes. "You can see he's got that flash of really high-end offence."

Between the two, each has something a little different to prove. Scheifele is coming out of a dominant OHL season, one where he rolled right over so many of teenaged opponents en route to the OHL's playoff scoring lead. The Jets want to see him lock his game down defensively, now that he's playing against men. Wright, on the other hand, is in a contract year, and eager to show he can be in a secondary scoring conversation.

"I want to contribute to this team where they see fit," he said. "But I see myself as trying to push to be in the top nine forwards. I have to be responsible defensively, that's kind of been my forte, but to add that extra spark offensively is going to be a good help to the team."

Wright was frank about his personal checklist to that end: the plan, he said, is to get open, get his hands dirty, score some greasy ones. And why not? There are no added points for style in this league. Besides, this is a guy who doesn't mind joking that some of his beer-league teammates are "better snipers than me."

No doubt, there are places that Wright will need to improve as he makes a case about where he should play, including closing the gap between the number of shots that go for and against the Jets when he is on the ice, a spot where his numbers lagged. But he is also just 23 with only 87 NHL games under his belt, barely more than a full season, a player in progress still. And if there are minutes, then there is a way to go along with the will.

"I've been getting opportunities," Wright said. "If I stop getting opportunities, I guess that's when I'll start to worry."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2013 D2

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