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Ex-Spartan Taro Hirose just got to NHL – he’s not going to slow down now

April 13th, 2019 by Nathaniel Bott, Lansing State Journal

DETROIT – There were times this past season when the entire crowd at Munn Ice Arena would gasp at the marvel of former Michigan State forward Taro Hirose. 

MSU hockey coach Danton Cole once described Hirose as “Datsyukian” – meaning comparable to that of former Detroit Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, whose display of silky, effortless moves left opposing skaters undressed, seemingly in disbelief of what had just happened to them on the ice.

“I always loved Datsyuk growing up, but I don’t think anyone could be like he was,” Hirose laughed.

It is fitting, however, that Hirose now finds himself with the same NHL organization to begin his professional career as the player he was compared to.

Hirose – a 5-foot-10, 160-pound center out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada – departed MSU at the end of his junior season after signing a two-way entry level contract with the Red Wings. He was the NCAA leader in points this winter with 15 goals and 35 assists in 36 games, the highest scoring season at MSU since John-Michael Liles in the 2002-2003 season.

Hirose was the Big Ten player of the year, a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten and first-team All-American selection, and was one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best player in college hockey.

So, if you followed Michigan State’s hockey’s season this year – heck, even if you just read the stats in the two paragraphs above – it should be no surprise that Hirose opened eyes with an excellent start to his NHL career shortly after signing, recording an assist in each of his first five games with Detroit. 

“I think you hope to do as well as you can and do what you did in college, but at the same time this is the best league in the world,” Hirose said. “I surprised myself a little bit, but I wanted to come in and make an impact right away.”

It was the longest streak of consecutive games with an assist for the Red Wings this season.

Hirose got his first NHL goal in his seventh game, early in the third period of a 6-3 Red Wings victory over Boston on March 31. The goal wound up being the game-winner, and Hirose was rewarded as the third star of the game. 

“It had been a while, and I was definitely thinking a lot about it, but once I got it, it was just an unbelievable feeling,” Hirose said. “Just hearing the crowd and all the cheers, it was really special.”

Hirose’s last goal had come for the Spartans against Wisconsin on Feb. 2.

Hirose earns high praise from high places

It is a complete unknown how players coming out of college – or from any level for that matter – are going to perform when they first reach the NHL.

From what the Red Wings coaches and players saw, Hirose more than held his own.

“I thought (Hirose) did a really good job when he first got here,” Detroit coach Jeff Blashill said. “One of the best things he has at his disposal is that he is able to create plays without tons of risk. You judge players on their positive plays versus their negative plays. He was creating lots of positive plays, but the last couple of games the negative plays started to build back up.

“I think he’s a smart enough player where he can be a really effective player. He’s just like everybody else fighting for position. He’s going to have to get stronger and quicker. He’s got a super good mind and he’s got a confidence to him. He looks like a guy that could help you win.”

Hirose said players in the locker room were very accepting of him and helped him get acclimated.

Longtime Red Wing Justin Abdelkader finally got another MSU alum to wear the winged wheel with him. 

Red Wings star Dylan Larkin – who many speculate will be named the team’s captain for next season – recognized the impressive start to Hirose’s career and thinks he can do more.

“He’s really consistent and he showed what he could do game after game for us,” Larkin said. “He’s a smart player and he always looks to make plays, and I think next year we are going to need him to come in and he proved himself in a good test of how he played down this stretch.

“If he plays that way, he’s definitely a dark horse for the (Calder Trophy), but that might be blowing it out of the water a little bit.”

Hirose even got some praise from Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, who said he was very happy with the signing and the way he produced in his first 10 games.

Hirose focused on improving for 2019-20

Hirose clearly made a positive first impression, But he knows nothing will be guaranteed going forward. He will have to get bigger, stronger and more durable. He’ll have plenty of competition in the battle for a roster spot next season.

“The summer for me is going to be huge, especially being a smaller guy,” Hirose said. “There’s going to be questions about whether or not I can play a full 82-game season at the NHL level. I’ve never been more excited to get in the gym and train after being able to see what it was like out there in the NHL and how much better I need to be.”

Looking at the Red Wings’ potential roster for next season, there several obstacles for him.

First, he would have to prove himself against the other young players the Red Wings have accumulated the past few seasons. Players such as Michael Rasmussen and Filip Zadina – the Red Wings’ two prior first-round picks – as well as Jacob De La Rose, Christoffer Ehn and Ryan Kuffner. Then there is the possibility of another elite-level forward being added to the mix when the franchise selects at No. 6 pick overall in this June’s draft.  

Hirose’s chances will also be affected by who the organization signs in free agency or what players may leave.

Hirose called veteran forward Thomas Vanek one of the most helpful players in getting him adjusted to NHL life. Ironically, it could be the spot of Vanek, if he chooses to leave as a free agent or retire, that could open up for Hirose or another young player.

Toward that end, Hirose feels he will be training with one of the best strength and conditioning staffs in the NHL. He highlighted it as one of the biggest reasons he signed with Detroit over the handful of other offers he had.

“There was a couple offers, but Detroit was very professional throughout the whole process,” Hirose said. “Having that comfortability of being at the developmental camp (in Detroit) and knowing how good they develop their players, that was a huge aspect for me.

“I think my game can get so much better and I think these guys are the best to help me get there.”

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