It wasn’t that long ago that winger Taro Hirose had just joined the Detroit Red Wings following a successful collegiate career with the Michigan State Spartans. The Winnipeg-native had interest from other teams as an undrafted free agent, but chose to stay in Michigan.
“It’s a little crazy that I could be playing in the NHL in the upcoming week. I’m just really excited and honored to be part of such a great organization,” Hirose said back then. As for why the then-23-year-old chose Detroit, he explained, “I think they understand my game and they showed a long-term plan for me, developing me and making sure that I can turn into the player that I want to be.
“Just looking at who they have, I saw some opportunity there that maybe I didn’t see in some other teams.”
In 10 games with the Red Wings to close out the 2018-19 season, he had an impressive seven points while establishing some chemistry with Andreas Athanasiou, a player that the Red Wings would trade less than a year later. Since that impressive start, Hirose has played a total of 35 games with Detroit, including three this season. In those 35 games since, he has 11 points. Meanwhile, with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League (AHL), he has played 116 games, totaling 24 goals and 100 points along the way.
Despite the opportunity with Detroit that Hirose didn’t feel he had with other teams, despite the long-term plan, despite all of that, it feels like he finds himself on the outside looking in in terms of the Red Wings’ rebuild under general manager Steve Yzerman (whose predecessor, Ken Holland, was the one who signed Hirose). Maybe it’s the lack of playing time in the NHL. Maybe it’s the growing prospect pool filled with players that can fill the exact role he fills…. No matter what the reason is, he finds himself in Detroit right now with an opportunity to prove that he’s more than just an excellent talent at the AHL level.
Hirose Has Become A Veteran Leader in the AHL
Let’s make one thing clear: there’s nothing wrong with carving out a fruitful career in the AHL. Players can make a good living down there, and it’s not like the league is bereft of talent. But when you’re a young player with your eyes set on the NHL, the longer you’re in the AHL, the farther away the NHL can sometimes feel.
In the case of Hirose, he’s embraced the role of being a key contributor for the Griffins in his own right while also taking on a mentor role for some of the Red Wings’ younger prospects, namely Jonatan Berggren this season.
“Coming into my third year, I think I can help the young guys, the (Berggren’s) and those guys to improve their games as well,” Hirose said when speaking to the media recently. Berggren, the Red Wings’ third pick in the 2018 draft (33rd overall) is a playmaker much like Hirose, though most project Berggren to be a legitimate difference-maker at the NHL level, a projection that very few attach to Hirose. Seeing players like Berggren come up through the ranks has to be a harsh reminder of where Hirose likely thought he would be at this point. If he is frustrated with that role, however, he’s doing a good job of projecting otherwise.
“It’s tough but…anything I can do to help any of the younger guys improve their game, I’m all for it,” Hirose said. With a veteran leadership group in Grand Rapids that includes Brian Lashoff, Riley Barber and others, Hirose’s role as a mentor despite being just 25 years old is something that the Red Wings undoubtedly place a lot of value in.
Hirose Has Improved
Hirose’s playmaking is evident from the very first time you watch him. He delays along the boards to get a good look at all available passing options. He isn’t one to fire the puck on net as soon as it hits his stick; if anything, his pass-first mentality has almost become a weakness for him at the NHL level as opposing defensemen likely know that he’s not looking to put the puck on net himself. With a little bit of space and time, however, he is adept at facilitating plays and setting up his team’s scorers to do what they do best, as evidenced by the Red Wings’ recent game against the Edmonton Oilers where he had two assists.
That’s pretty much been his scouting report since the day he became a Red Wing. He’s not overly physical, he’s not somebody you want on the ice to protect a lead, and he’s liable to have a nasty giveaway or two in a game as he tries to thread the seam on a breakout pass. Despite his obvious offensive prowess, these are some of the biggest reasons why Hirose hasn’t been able to stick in the NHL on a full-time basis.
Make no mistake though: Hirose is working on all of that. He mentioned how he’s been working on making his shot a bit more lethal, understanding that becoming a viable scoring threat himself would open up passing lanes as the opposition focuses on taking away his shooting lanes. With a 5-foot-10, 160 pound frame, he’s never going to be able to outmuscle the biggest and strongest defenders in the NHL, but that doesn’t mean he won’t compete every single time he’s out on the ice.
It’s his willingness to learn and adapt, and his understanding of what he is a player that had led him to a permanent spot in the Griffins’ top six while he’s with them. It’s that maturity that makes him a suitable role model for players like Berggren.
A Turning Point in Hirose’s Career?
It would be one thing if Hirose was playing in the AHL while the Red Wings ice a lineup filled with lackluster players that can’t provide what he can. That’s not the case though, as Hirose notes.
“I think that all the guys that are (in Detroit) deserve to be here,” Hirose pointed out. “so I think it’s just working as hard as I can in (Grand Rapids) and wait for my time to get a chance here.”
The Red Wings have just 21 games left in their season. The trade deadline is on Monday. Yzerman is more than likely going to ship out a few players from the Red Wings’ roster, and that’s on top of players like Robby Fabbri who are out due to injury. Hirose is on the Red Wings’ roster right now, and there’s a somewhat decent chance that he’ll stay there until the season comes to a close. If he’s going to show the Red Wings’ coaches and management team that he belongs with the red and white, this is his opportunity to do it. And if his future ultimately isn’t in Detroit, then this is still an opportunity for him to showcase himself to the other 31 teams in the league. His contract is up at the end of the season, after which he’ll be an unrestricted free agent, free to sign wherever he chooses.
Hirose chose to sign with the Red Wings because he believed in the plan they had for him. Over the next month or so, we’ll find out whether he still believes in the plan, and if the Red Wings still believe in him.
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.