What does Akito Hirose’s readiness mean for the future of the Canucks’ blueline?
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
We realize that we might be jumping the gun with this article.
On Wednesday, Akito Hirose played his sixth NHL game with the Vancouver Canucks.
The Sunday prior, he turned 24 years old.
Go back two weeks, and he’s is still skating in the NCAA for Minnesota State U Mankato.
It’s been quite a fortnight for Hirose…but it’s still only been two weeks.
Nevertheless, we’re excited enough about what we’ve seen to start wondering what it might mean.
Hirose was one of the most highly-touted NCAA free agents available this season. Scouts described him as someone with a probable NHL future, though such things are never guaranteed with undrafted talent. The hope was that the Canucks could get him into a few games now, late in the season, and then start developing him in Abbotsford next year.
Those hopes have been ratcheted up, however, and the plan might need to change. Because what Hirose has actually done is arrive in Vancouver looking like a ready-to-go top-four LHD right out of the box, and a quality one built for the modern NHL, at that.
Small sample size aside, the numbers certainly support the notion that Hirose has been an instant success. Six games, three assists. An average of more than 17 minutes a night. Zero goals against at even-strength. This, despite Hirose already arguably being deployed in a semi-shutdown role, with close to 60% of his starts taking place in the defensive zone and many of his shifts taking place against top-six competition.
Now, those numbers are encouraging, but they should also be observed with caution. It’s a short sample size, as we noted, and everything tends to get a little wonky this time of year. Sure, Hirose’s numbers look good, but so do the Canucks’ as a whole, and that can’t be entirely accurate, can it? There’s every chance that Hirose is just benefitting from joining a hot team, and that his results will stabilize when the rest of the Canucks’ do.
But it’s not just about the numbers when it comes to Hirose. If anything, the ol’ eye test says that Hirose is actually performing better than the numbers suggest…especially that 36.2% Corsi he’s currently rocking.
Hirose’s skating and passing abilities are on display for anyone to see. Even more apparent, though, are those high-level hockey qualities located inside his newly-college-educated mind.
Hirose is cool, calm, collected, and probably some other positive traits that start with ‘c.’ He handles the puck in his own zone like a seasoned veteran, instead of handling it like a live grenade as many nervous new NHLers are wont to do.
Hirose seems to excel under pressure. His first few NHL games featured some large, fast, heavy forechecking teams, and yet Hirose was already spinning out of the corner with the puck on his stick and his head up, avoiding a check and setting up the next play.
Hirose’s vision appears to be exceptional. When he looks up the ice, he’s not just finding someone to pass to, he’s anticipating the play all the way up the ice from there. It’s a natural gift that has already resulted in Hirose making some big plays, and that doesn’t look to be stopping anytime soon.
And, really, that might be the key thing to point out about Hirose’s success thus far. It looks so damn sustainable. This really doesn’t look like a rookie playing over his head on a combination of beginner’s luck and youthful enthusiasm. This looks like a defender fully in control of himself and his game at all times, and that’s the kind of success that can usually last.
Those Chris Tanev comparisons aren’t coming out of nowhere.
So, let’s get off the present day analysis train and make the assumption that Hirose will continue to keep playing at about this same level from here on out. What does that mean for the future of the Canucks’ blueline?
Well, for one, it means they’ve scored a real coup.
For any undrafted NCAA free agent to turn into a legitimate prospect is a win. Who doesn’t want a free prospect? For that player to turn into something more than a bottom-end NHLer is a rarer win. For it to happen right out of the gate is the rarest win of all, and something that’s only happened a handful of times.
When all of the above happens to a team like the Vancouver Canucks, starved for long-term blueline talent and prospects in general, the word ‘win’ just doesn’t cut it. Like we said, it’s a coup. Hirose is exactly what they needed in the system, and all they had to do to get him was convince him to sign a contract.
Hirose is currently playing at a level that might be described as “top-four.” To pencil him in to that same role as soon as next season might be a bridge too far. The most games Hirose has ever played in a season is 57 for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks back in 2019/20, so expecting him to hold down a top-four spot as a rookie is asking a lot.
Doing so behind a Quinn Hughes type, expected to play up to 27 minutes a night all year long, however? With Hirose perhaps skating alongside a partner as quality as Filip Hronek? That might actually be doable, and that’s probably the ideal long-term outcome for Hirose.
A more likely short-term outcome is that the Canucks simply pencil Hirose into the lineup, starting on the bottom pair and working his way up from there. He’s still got waiver exemption for a couple of seasons, and so he’ll still have to earn his spot against challengers like Jack Rathbone, Christian Wolanin, and Guillaume Brisebois. But, for now, the job can be considered Hirose’s.
That still leaves the Canucks on the lookout for an additional top-four LHD this offseason, which is probably as it should be. After all, the Canucks aren’t going to suffer from too much blueline talent anytime soon.
There are still those heavy rumours about Vladislav Gavrikov, and a defender of his ilk — so long as they’re not signed to too long a term — might make for the perfect succession plan. With Hughes and another quality LHD veteran on the roster, Hirose would be free to develop at his own pace, picking up additional minutes and responsibilities as he earns them. When and if he’s deemed fully ready for top-four minutes, that other LHD either becomes a luxury or is traded off at a profit.
The plan sounds just about perfect, and that’s pretty remarkable to say, given that two weeks ago most Canucks’ fans didn’t even know Akito Hirose existed. There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one: Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
We’ve already written about the future of OEL with the team, and came to the conclusion that an offseason buyout was the most prudent choice.
Hirose’s immediate success makes that all the more true.
As it stands, Ekman-Larsson is decidedly in the way. If he’s kept around, the team is almost obligated to give him enough minutes to attempt to resurrect his career, and that either prevents them from adding an additional LHD or it blocks Hirose’s spot on the team next year. Neither is an ideal outcome.
With OEL bought out, however, the Canucks are lined up to ice a much better left-side in 2023/24 than they did this year. They can go into the offseason with cap space and confidence, knowing that if they don’t land someone like Gavrikov right away, Hirose is probably fine to hold down those minutes until they do.
As an added bonus, Hirose’s presumably reasonable second contract, and whatever comes after, should act to soften the blow of any OEL cap penalties for the next few years.
Like we said, it’s just about perfect. The arrival of Hirose couldn’t have come at a better time for the Vancouver Canucks, and they couldn’t be happier about what has arrived.
So, yeah, maybe we’re jumping the gun. Or maybe, just maybe, the Canucks have finally hit an unmitigated bullseye on this one.
So far, it looks like the latter.
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