Akito Hirose emerged as the frontrunner from the Canucks’ recent NCAA signings
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
6 months ago
Calgary-born and recent NCAA signing Akito Hirose might just be a Ric Flair fan. While the 24-year-old may not have been alive when the Nature Boy debuted his infamous, “To be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man” soundbite, he could have fooled fans with the way he followed that saying to a tee.
Hirose spent the first half of his teenage years playing for the latest CSSHL U18 Champions, Edge Prep School. The CSSHL has cultivated some pretty big NHL names as of late like this year’s projected number-one pick Connor Bedard. Instead of following the likes of Bedard and playing in the WHL, Hirose played out his 16 to 20-year-old seasons for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the BCHL, captaining the team while putting up 57 points in 51 games (9 goals and 42 assists) in his final season.
Nevertheless, the most elite company Hirose has had up to this point in his career was as a member of the 2021-22 Minnesota Mankato team that won the CCHA Championship, during which he was the WCHA Rookie of the Year.
Ultimately deciding to forgo his last collegiate season, Hirose became the second of three NCAA free agents to sign with the Canucks and make his NHL debut this season. Speaking of NCAA pickups, which former blue-line warrior also signed with Vancouver in 2010? Chris Tanev. It would seem as though the Canucks have had a bit of success acquiring prospects this way.
Hirose looked more than fine in his first NHL game, wasting no time showcasing his maturity on the ice. Paired alongside Tyler Myers, who just so happened to win the Calder Trophy the same season Tanev signed with the Canucks, Hirose recorded his first NHL point and multi-point game in his third appearance in a Canuck sweater.
Perhaps the most interesting stat from Hirose’s small seven-game stretch with the team was his production on the second powerplay unit. Two of Hirose’s three points this season came from powerplay assists, demonstrating his pass-first mentality and intelligent playmaking. His quick decision-making behind the play is what initially led Hirose to make the switch from forward to defenceman in the middle of junior hockey.
Despite his extremely late start to the position, Hirose’s offensive upside from previously being a forward has lent itself to his defensive perception of the game. In his showing with the Canucks, Hirose seemed unaffected by any first-game nerves. He was poised on breakouts, giving himself time and space to locate accelerating wingers with purposeful passes, even if that meant taking a second to turn back and face incoming pressure from opposing forecheckers. Upon first glance, his refined skill and composure aren’t that dissimilar from fellow left-shot defenceman Quinn Hughes, which isn’t a surprise considering Hirose told the media during his first interview that he’s taken bits and pieces of Hughes’ style and integrated them into his own game.
Hirose also wasn’t shy to criticize the weakest aspect of his game — his size and strength — while speaking to media members, acknowledging that he will need to put on more weight if he intends to tame the Canucks blueline full-time. However, head coach Rick Tocchet took the time to praise Hirose’s body position when asked for comments about the defender’s game — even referring to his technique fighting off defenders as “a good teaching tool to show the other guys.”
While Hirose will most likely spend the majority of next year gaining valuable experience with Vancouver’s AHL affiliate, the Abbotsford Canucks, The Athletic’s Harman Dayal said during an episode of Canucks Conversation that Hirose has enough potential to challenge 28-year-old Christian Wolanin for a roster spot come opening day. If this is the case, that would also increase Hirose’s likelihood of being the organization’s first call-up choice throughout the season if injuries occur. The Canucks were already impressed enough with Hirose to give him the opportunity to log a season-high 20:30 seconds in just his third NHL game. His ability to eat up both powerplay and penalty kill minutes, and do so with a certain level of reliability and steadiness to his game gives Hirose the closest NHL ceiling from the trio of players the Canucks landed this NCAA free agency season.
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