What the Canucks have in new prospect Akito Hirose

Apr 3 2023, 8:21 pm

The NCAA free agent signing season has commenced and the Vancouver Canucks were not going to be denied. Further bolstering their prospect pool, the organization announced the signing of 23-year-old Akito Hirose, one of Minnesota State University Mankato’s best defenders.

The 6-foot-0, 170-pound, left-shot defender was one of the more interesting prospects available across the NCAA free agent pool. Playing with Jake Livingstone, a player we profiled earlier in the season who signed with the Nashville Predators, Hirose generated 27 points across 38 games in his sophomore season. 

Before his college career, the Calgary-born defender spent some significant time in British Columbia, playing four seasons with the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks. In his final campaign in 2019-20, Hirose exploded for 51 points in 53 games leading the league in points and assists for a defender, winning the league’s defender of the year award. 

A nuanced, detail-oriented player who blends mobility with a myriad of translatable habits, Hirose out-thinks his opponents to create advantages. 

Hirose made his NHL debut on Sunday, playing 14:01 against the Los Angeles Kings. Here’s what to expect from him going forward.

Hirose’s transition work can translate to NHL

As high-end puck movers continue to leverage success at the NHL level, it’s no surprise that the Canucks were so interested in Hirose’s services. 

Full of passing skill, the former Silverback captain effectively layers long-bomb, cross-rink feeds to send his forwards in flying. His range is frankly akin to NCAA superstar Caitlin Clark’s logo three-pointers. Often connecting through layers of defenders, Hirose makes sure to get in motion, limiting the potential of pick-offs, and blends his edges to escape from pressure. 

While he isn’t a burner or an extraordinary handler, Hirose is no slouch when it comes to carrying the puck. Able to access his outside edges to create crossover speed with possession, his hockey sense is what takes over. 

Constantly adjusting his rush patterns to the middle of the ice, the new Canuck often tries to manipulate defenders by using their momentum against them, juking one-way, just to cut against the grain. Hirose doesn’t do a ton after the entry or manipulation — often defaulting to weak shots focused on using defenders as screens or inefficient forays through pressure. 

Nevertheless, he finds routes to slice into, activates backdoor adding himself as a pass option, and protects the puck at his hip when pressure mounts — all traits needed to produce from the back end at higher levels. 

If the Canucks can leverage Hirose’s ability to create a controlled entry and develop more playmaking habits, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see more success in the NHL, especially with smarter pass supporters.

The issue is that defenders are just bigger, faster, and far more suffocating at preventing entries — especially if the puck carrier’s game is based more on deception than speed. This could mean that Hirose might have to default to his passing game to have success at the NHL level. 

How will Hirose handle an NHL forecheck?

Opposing teams’ forechecks at the NHL level are unforgiving, high-paced, and physical, which usually does not bode well for defenders who operate at lighter weights. As mentioned, Hirose only comes in at around 170 pounds, and because of that, he has adapted to develop habits to help him win retrievals and start breakouts more effectively. 

Before every retrieval attempt, Hirose scans threats over his shoulder to better mental map forecheckers’ vectors of attack and make better decisions. With that information, Hirose reads pressure off his back, blends his edges to quickly change direction, and then uses his passing skill to escape the pressure.  

With more pressure, he proactively initiates contact, checks sticks, and works himself into superior body positioning. Troubles arise when Hirose is caught off balance — often resulting in some nasty end-board collisions. He has the habits to survive at the NHL level, but he will have to keep manipulating a high level to prevent scenarios where he is enveloped by pressure. 

How Hirose defends

Hirose’s defending, as you may have guessed, is also full of nuance, especially on the rush. His game is all based around his defensive skating; the leveraging of his crossovers to create superior gaps to guide to the outside. Layer that with plus-stick work, and immense aggression in the neutral zone and defensive zone blue line, and you have an extremely disruptive player.

The aggression can backfire, but he’s NHL-ready in almost every regard. 

Just like in other areas of Hirose’s game, his sense takes over when defending in-zone pressure. His processing of the next play is evident, as he is almost always leveraging good positioning. Hirose tracks activators can seal off walls by planting a foot inside his opponent’s stance, and is equally disruptive with his stick. He even has a nasty side to his game, especially when dealing with net-front screens. 

Offensive upside?

While Hirose has had offensive success in the past, his shooting probably won’t be a factor in the NHL. Often placed at the top of the point in NCAA action, his shot is considerably weak. The undrafted prospect focuses more on creating a cleaner shot lane with body manipulations, moving the puck from the boards to the middle of the ice, and placing low, tip-able shots through the slot. 

When he isn’t feathering shots from the top of the point, Hirose flashes playmaking and innovative activation to create. Smart pinches, slip passes, placing pucks into open space, and freezing defenders with fakes are all part of his arsenal. His edges stand out, slipping past defenders, and escaping pressure on the line. 

The passing skill and activation habits should pay dividends, but usage will be different in the NHL. Power-play opportunities may be rare for Hirose going forward, but at the very least he can keep possessions alive. 

Future outlook

While Hirose is further along on the development curve at 23 years old, it’s easy to see why the Canucks coveted him as a free agent. He’s not only a strong transition player but also a proficient in-zone and rush defender, with NHL upside. He may just end up being a depth option for the organization going forward, but there is a path to develop a bottom-pairing puck mover who could push some positive minutes on both the offensive and defensive side of the puck.

Daniel GeeDaniel Gee

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