Taro Hirose was one of the Red Wings’ surprise college free-agent signings of 2018–19, along with Ryan Kuffner (read Kuffner’s prospect review here). But the bigger surprise was just how comfortable Hirose looked on NHL ice. Fans are looking forward to see if Hirose can consistently duplicate that level of play as a regular roster player for the Red Wings.
Drafted: Undrafted (college free-agent signing)
Weight: 160 lbs
Birthday: June 30, 1996 (age 23)
Latest team: Detroit Red Wings
After an outstanding high school hockey career, during which he totaled 80-83-163 in 109 games played, Hirose played Junior A hockey for two seasons with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). In 2014–15, he was named Rookie of the Year, and in 2015–16, he led the team in scoring with 15-56-71 in 58 games.
Hirose began his collegiate hockey career with the Michigan State Spartans in 2016–17. He had a solid freshman season, ending with 6-18-24 in 34 games. The next season, he pushed his production to 12-30-42 in 36 games, leading the team with a point total that hadn’t been achieved by a Spartan in the last eight seasons. This was enough to rank him second in the Big 10 Conference. In 2018–19, his third year at MSU, Hirose was named an alternate captain and dialed up his game to lead the nation in points (50), assists (35), points per game (1.47), and multi-point games (15), with 36 games played. With this exceptional performance, he was named the Big 10 Player of the Year and became a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. He also posted 10-24-34 in 34 conference games, which made him the Big 10 Scoring Champion of the season.
In March 2019, Hirose signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Wings. Although his end-of-the-season NHL audition was brief, it was enough time for him to impress teammates, coaching staff, and fans alike. He started out strong with an exciting 5-game assist streak and ended with a total of 7 points in 10 games. He tallied his first NHL point in the first period of his first game and scored his first NHL goal on March 31, 2019, against the Boston Bruins.
Hirose’s overall game is characterized by his exceptional hockey IQ. Although the jump from college hockey to the NHL is not easy for many players, Hirose is well suited for the transition because of his intelligent style of play, which translates well to the pro level. He has excellent on-ice vision and can make quick, smart judgments that lead to high-level plays. Although his raw tools are not elite and his shot could use some work, he still has great hands and passing ability. He could be considered a line driver, elevating the players around him with his skill and play-making ability.
At 5′10″, 160 pounds, Hirose is considerably undersized for an NHLer. If he can bulk up a bit, it will be better for him in the long run. But at the same time, his size may not be much of an issue given that his style of play relies on hockey sense instead of physicality. Growing up in Calgary and rooting for the Flames, Hirose modeled his game after his favorite player, Johnny Gaudreau, and has developed into a small, speedy, skilled, and smart winger.
When Hirose first came aboard, the possibility of him making the team out of camp seemed like a long shot, but now it seems likely. Of course, he may still end up playing in Grand Rapids for a little while, but from what we saw of him in Detroit, he seems fully ready to take on the NHL full time. He made a strong impression at the Red Wings’ 2019 development camp and was one of the players who stood out the most. Obviously he still needs to compete for a roster spot, but I expect to see him in the lineup on opening night.
Assuming that he does make the team, there are a number of spots he could play in. The fact that the Wings don’t have a ton of top-end talent right now serves as an advantage for Hirose because he could comfortably slot in the middle six. His style of play is another advantage. It makes him versatile. If he’s playing with slow-moving veterans, he has enough skill and speed to produce on that line, and if he’s playing with other young guys, he has the hockey sense to keep the play moving and set up good scoring chances. He showed considerable chemistry with Andreas Athanasiou, so he may be able to get the second-line winger spot opposite him, with either Frans Nielsen or Valtteri Filppula centering.
The big question is whether he can produce at the same level that he did in his first 10 NHL games. The potential is there, but it all depends on the opportunity he’s given. Will he be playing on the third line or the second line? How much power-play time will he get? Who will he be playing with? The way coach Jeff Blashill chooses to use Hirose will probably have a big impact on how he develops at the NHL level.
All in all, this was a fantastic signing for the Wings — little risk with a potentially huge payoff. Although there aren’t many college free agents who pan out to be career NHLers, Hirose looks to be the exception. Watching him has been exciting, and hopes for him are high, which is why he is placed at #9 on this list. Even with such a small NHL sample size, Hirose has already seemed to prove himself to be a solid piece for a young, rebuilding team. I anticipate that he will be a part of the Wings core for many years to come.
Worst-case scenario: Decent fourth-line winger
Best-case scenario: Steady second-liner who can score 45+ points