Detroit — The fact Taro Hirose returns to his hometown of Calgary on Thursday as an NHL player is somewhat mind-blowing to him.
Hirose was an undrafted player. He spent all four years at Michigan State, improving, tirelessly getting better at his craft.
When Hirose skates onto the Scotiabank Saddledome ice as a member of the Red Wings, it’ll be a dream come true and also, an affirmation for all the work he put in.
“You never really know what your path is going to be,” Hirose said last week, thinking ahead to the game at the Saddledome. “It’ll be pretty cool playing there, in front of the Sea of Red. I’m really looking forward to it, and a real cool experience for me and my family.”
At 23, Hirose has become part of an NHL lineup, never yet seeing a day in the minor leagues, and impressing coaches and teammates with his instincts, play-making ability and transition into pro hockey.
After ending his college career at Michigan State last spring, Hirose signed a free-agent contract with the Wings and immediately stepped into the lineup. In 10 games, he had seven points (one goal, six assists) with an even plus-minus rating.
Hirose earned an NHL job out of last month’s training camp and exhibition season, and has two assists in six games thus far, and a monitoring-worthy minus-5 rating.
Hirose wasn’t surprised, or crushed, when he wasn’t drafted by an NHL team.
“Honestly, I wasn’t disappointed. It wasn’t like something I was expecting at that point in my career,” Hirose said. “Stacked up against the other guys in my draft class, I knew I needed to go where I was going to go (likely college hockey), and it wasn’t the biggest deal in my life for me.
“I knew I needed to keep working, and continue to prove people wrong.”
The biggest issue then, and at times now, is Hirose’s size and build.
Listed at 5-foot-10, 162 pounds, Hirose looks even thinner and smaller than that, and the lack of exceptional speed and preferred strength left many scouts uninterested.
But the Wings always liked Hirose’s ability to make plays at MSU, and the consistent improvement in his play.
Hirose went from 24 points his sophomore season, to 50 points (15 goals, 35 assists) in 36 games his senior season, taking on a key role on and off the ice.
The NHL was still a faraway dream, but after Hirose’s sophomore season he felt there was more of a chance.
“I took a big step there, being able to sort of dominate and control the play a little more,” Hirose said. “Going into college, I knew for sure I’d be a four-year guy. That second year was a stepping point for me, and going into my junior year, I wanted to contribute more and help the team win and was I able to do that.”
One area of his skill set that Hirose concentrated on this summer was shooting the puck, another area that some scouts felt may not be entirely NHL-ready.
Teammates, and coach Jeff Blashill, say they feel Hirose’s shot is heavier and harder this season.
“It’s a way harder shot than it was, and I know he worked hard at it this summer,” Blashill said. “He’s got more of a shot threat, and that’s given him confidence to shoot it more. Has he gotten bigger and quicker, or stronger and quicker? Maybe a little bit. It’s hard for me to say. For sure his shot is a tangible thing he’s gotten better at.”
Choosing to sign with the Wings, instead of several other teams last spring that were interested in Hirose, wasn’t a difficult decision.
Hirose was familiar and comfortable with the organization, and felt it was a good place for a developing young player to be.
“At the end of the day, Detroit really stuck out for me — and I’m glad with my choice,” Hirose said. “They’re good in development; you see the guys who’ve played in the AHL (in Grand Rapids) and come up to the team, they have a long history of development.
“For myself, that’s a big part. I want to continue to get better, and there’s a real opportunity to play and that was a big deal for me.”
Hirose said he didn’t return to Calgary last summer, instead staying in the Detroit area and working with skills coaches and working in the weight room.
So, simply returning home for a couple of days, plus the chance to play in front of family and friends in a Red Wings’ sweater, all will make for an unforgettable evening.
“Exciting, just really exciting,” Hirose said. “Exciting to play in the Saddledome and play against the team I grew up watching.”
If you didn’t stay up for Tuesday’s game in Vancouver, you didn’t miss anything at all.
The Wings lost 5-1 in Vancouver, in a disappointing performance all the way around.
Dylan Larkin scored 30 seconds into the game — and that was about it for the positive news.
The Wings allowed three Vancouver power-play goals, and went 0-for-3 themselves, including failing to score on a lengthy two-man advantage in the third period.
“Special teams were not good enough,” forward Frans Nielsen told reporters afterward (Nielsen returned to the Wings’ lineup after missing three games with an upper-body injury). “They just wanted it a little more than us. Structure wise, we’re fine, it just comes down to working harder and competing out there and they did a better job at that.”
Larkin was disappointed with the Wings’ competitiveness.
“It wasn't enough for our team to come in and start a road trip and not have the compete level anywhere near to what theirs was, what it should be in an NHL game,” Larkin said. “It was unacceptable, frustrating. If we play like that every night, it is going to be the same result.
“We're not good enough to come out and just throw our sticks out there and play hockey. We need to battle, we need to block shots, the (penalty kill) needs to be good, we need to win battles in front of our net, and we didn’t do any of that tonight and it’s frustrating.”
Red Wings at Calgary Flames
► Faceoff: 9 p.m. Thursday, Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary
► TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
► Outlook: The Wings (3-3-0) meet the Flames (3-3-1) for the first time this season. … Calgary is coming off a 3-1 victory Tuesday over Philadelphia. … LW Johnny Gaudreau (seven points in seven games) and LW Matthew Tkachuk (six points) have sparked the offense, while G David Rittich (2.80 GAA, .912 SVS) has claimed the starting job.