For the first time ever, Akito Hirose is at an NHL camp.
That’s somewhat surprising considering the 24-year-old defenceman already has seven games of NHL experience under his belt after signing with the Vancouver Canucks at the end of last season. But Hirose never sought out or accepted an invitation to any NHL development or training camps prior to signing with the Canucks.
While some undrafted free agents see those camps as opportunities to catch the attention of an NHL team to earn a contract, Hirose never felt that was necessary.
“I've never been to a development camp before,” said Hirose. “Never really saw the point in going when I'm not part of the organization. I mean, if you play well enough, they're gonna come watch you, so that was always my mindset on never going to one.
“But now that I'm part of Vancouver, I'm super excited to be here.”
"I'm not really trying to put any expectations on it."
The excitement is understandable. His camp kicked off with a contract extension, as he signed a two-year deal on Sunday — the contract is a two-way deal in the first year that becomes a one-way deal in the second year, with a cap hit of $787,500.
“Obviously, it's something that I knew I'd have to get taken care of this summer,” said Hirose. “Allain [Roy], my agent, they're really good with that stuff, kind of keeping me in the dark, which is how I like it. You've just got to let them handle it and I'm really excited for the next two years here.”
The contract structure gives him some security over the next two years, even if he ends up in the AHL for both seasons. Of course, the AHL isn’t really the plan. There’s an opening on the Canucks’ blue line, with a clear opportunity for Hirose to seize a spot in the lineup with a strong training camp in September.
Hirose is staying characteristically cool and calm about the possibility of making the Canucks out of camp next season.
“I’m not really trying to put any expectations on it,” he said. “Just trying to work hard this summer, finish strong these next two months after development camp, and come in and give it everything I've got. After that, there's not much I can control.”
"It's gonna be a lot harder."
In a way, Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet threw down the gauntlet to Hirose in their exit meeting. He made it clear that there will be an opportunity available but it won’t just be handed to him.
“He just told me, be ready to go next training camp in September because it's gonna be a lot harder,” said Hirose, paraphrasing Tocchet. “There's gonna be a lot more guys competing for that spot. So, just be ready to go.”
Hirose impressed Canucks fans with his poise in his brief NHL audition but he looks at those seven games as objectively as possible.
“It was nice to get a feel for the pace, even though I know it's garbage time the last seven games of the year,” said Hirose. “I thought it went alright. It's just nice to know kind of what your role is going to be at the next level. You're not going to play the same offensive role, PP1 quarterback kind of thing. You've got to adapt.”
Hirose, along with a couple of other prospects, brought up a speech that Arshdeep Bains gave at the start of camp. Bains talked about the changes he made to his game to adapt from being the go-to guy with the Red Deer Rebels where he led the WHL in scoring to becoming a reliable role player for the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL.
“It’s a hard thing to do,” says Abbotsford coach Jeremy Colliton about Bains’ speech. “Why he was chosen to speak is just how open he was to feedback and willing to take that message and adapt it and do everything he can — his humility in understanding the work he needed to put in to establish himself as a pro.
“Now, he was one of our most important players at the end of the year. That’s an important lesson for everyone.”
Hirose said that message from Bains resonated with him as he aims to perhaps make the Canucks as a third-pairing defenceman. That’s a role that could mean a lot more time playing on the penalty kill and blocking shots defensively rather than making plays offensively.
"You can just tell he's played in the league."
Colliton said that Hirose has caught his attention early in camp.
“You can tell he's older and he's got the experience,” said Colliton. “He's got a smoothness and a swagger to him, that you can just tell he's played in the league. It's great for maybe an 18 year old to come in and see him where that's kind of what you're competing with…When he goes first in a drill and does it well, that's a benefit for everyone.”
With that in mind, Colliton might even secretly hope that Hirose is in Abbotsford to start next season. That might even be what’s best for Hirose, as he admitted that he still needs to work on his size and strength to adapt to the rigours of playing in the NHL every day.
While Hirose is 6’0”, he’s listed at 170 lbs, making him the second-lightest defenceman to play in the NHL last season. Only Jared Spurgeon, who is 5’9”, was lighter than Hirose at 166 lbs.
That said, Hirose prizes the details he’s learning at development camp above the gains he needs to make in the gym in the coming months, as he believes those details will be key to winning puck battles.
“I'd say body positioning is the biggest thing over strength and size. Then I'd say it probably goes to footwork and then overall quickness, and then probably fourth, strength and size,” said Hirose. “I mean, if you're slow and you're strong, there's not much you can do.
“But it's definitely an important thing. There's definitely minimum standards that you have to have and I think that's what I'm building towards.”
The hope for Hirose is that once he meets those standards of size and strength, his hockey IQ will make him an impactful contributor to the Canucks’ blue line next season.