A few days after signing centre Max Sasson, the Vancouver Canucks have signed another undrafted free agent out of college hockey, this time a defenceman.
On Wednesday, the Canucks announced the signing of Akito Hirose to a one-year, entry-level contract.
It's an intriguing signing for the Canucks not only because Hirose is a serious talent with legitimate NHL upside, but because of the structure of the deal. A one-year contract for Hirose means that he will immediately be a restricted free agent in the offseason, eligible to sign a more significant deal ahead of what could be his rookie year in the NHL.
Hirose played his junior hockey in the BCHL for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, where he was a bit of a late bloomer. In his first year of draft eligibility, Hirose had just 10 points in 44 games and didn't garner any draft interest. He continued to grow his game in the BCHL, however, and was a First-Team All-Star a few years later when he led all defencemen in assists and points.
A smooth transition to the NCAA swiftly followed. He was named the NCAA (WCHA) Rookie of the Year as a freshman, then kept adding to his game as a sophomore and junior, to the point that he quickly became one of the top college free agents available.
Hirose has a subtle, detailed game that should translate well to professional hockey. He's the type of modern, mobile defensive defenceman who can retrieve the puck quickly and turn it up ice in a hurry. He also has a fantastic activation game in the offensive zone that creates time and space for his teammates.
"Hirose generates the majority of his value with small, almost imperceptible plays that improve his team's conditions at every corner of the ice," reads his scouting report from Elite Prospects. "Each defensive zone retrieval is preceded by a series of moves to hide his intended decision, and constant scanning allows him to register threats and options well in advance of collecting the puck."
The biggest question mark for Hirose is how he'll handle the more physical game of the AHL and NHL. At 6'0", Hirose is below average for an NHL defenceman, but the bigger concern is his weight at 170 lbs. Since he's already 23 years old, there's a limit to how much he might be able to bulk up, particularly since the NCAA training schedule typically already includes a lot of time in the gym.
Hirose defends less with his body and more with his skating, with impeccable gap control and an active stick. But the physical game along the boards and in front of the net could still be an issue that could prevent him from becoming a regular in the NHL.
With everything else that he provides, however, Hirose could provide enough value that any physical shortcomings won't matter.