Canucks’ McWard, Hirose embracing competition: ‘That just pushes me harder’

Vancouver Canucks' Akito Hirose waits for a faceoff during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings in Vancouver, on Sunday, April 2, 2023. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

PENTICTON — Garbage time was prime time last season for Akito Hirose and Cole McWard.

Signed as college free agents by the Vancouver Canucks, the defencemen skated straight from school to the National Hockey League for end-of-season auditions in April. 

Hirose, a 24-year-old from Minnesota State, played the final seven games for Vancouver and impressed everyone with his poise and passing. The Calgarian was rewarded by coach Rick Tocchet with 17:28 of average ice time and, in July, by general manager Patrik Allvin with a new, two-year contract that becomes a one-way NHL deal in its second season.

McWard, a fleet 23-year-old from St. Louis who spent the last two years at Ohio State University, logged five games for the Canucks, averaging 14:13 of ice time and managing his first NHL goal in a 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames. 

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The opportunity they received is an advantage poor NHL teams have in luring late-season free agents. Good teams are getting ready for the playoffs and generally don’t squander lineup spots to assess rookies.

Hirose and McWard made the most of their minutes, planting themselves on the Canucks’ radar as genuine prospects who may help the team long-term.

Five months later, however, they’re in Penticton for the Canucks’ Young Stars tournament, part of a team that includes, among others, teenagers just drafted and free-agent invitees.

Both have looked good, as you would expect, in the first days of the annual development showcase that includes prospects from the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets. But Penticton feels a long way from the NHL.

The full reality of trying to make an NHL roster will hit players next Thursday when the Canucks open training camp in Victoria.

“I think those games (in the NHL last spring) built confidence, knowing that I can belong there and knowing that I can step in and play,” McWard said after scoring in the Canuck prospects’ 7-1 win Friday night against the Flames. “But now, it’s just being one of those guys to be called upon and being one of those guys that they see me being able to do that every night.”

“They were very open with me about the opportunity that I had and saying that there’s a very real possibility I’ll be in Abbotsford (in the American Hockey League) to start the year. Wherever I end up, I just want to play the best hockey I can, play my game and it’ll come to me. Just be patient, keep working hard, and I’ll get my opportunity.”

The competition to win spots at the bottom of the Canucks’ defence has become significantly deeper over the last year.

Pouring resources (and coaches) into player development, the Canucks promoted veteran minor-leaguers Christian Wolanin and Guillaume Brisebois to the NHL after Tocchet replaced Bruce Boudreau as coach in January. Another Abbotsford defenceman, Noah Juulsen, was recalled and played 10 games in Vancouver before getting hurt. All three players re-signed with the Canucks.

Defenceman Filip Johansson, an unsigned first-round pick of the Minnesota Wild who joined the Canucks as a free agent last year, has come to North America after spending four seasons with Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League.

And during free agency in July, Allvin used the money he saved from the Oliver Ekman-Larsson buyout to sign Carson Soucy and Ian Cole for the middle of the Canucks’ blue line. Veteran Matt Irwin, who has logged 461 NHL games for six teams, signed a two-way contract to bolster depth.

Throw in experienced minor-league prospects Jack Rathbone and Jet Woo, and the Canucks have a lot of defencemen pushing for playing time.

“I feel like here (in Penticton), you know, it’s a team aspect,” McWard said of the competition. “A lot of guys, they want to have the individual success and they want to push forward. Everyone’s trying to strive for more in their career. But at the same time, I think that there’s a balance in being a good teammate and being happy for your teammates and that, you know, if we all move forward, we’re all going to get a chance to play at some point. It’s just going to come down to who can do it night in and night out.”

Hirose used a football recruiting analogy to describe the Canucks’ prospect pool.

“It’s real competitive but I think it’s a good environment,” he said. “This might be a little out of context, but you look at football schools like Alabama, and all the best players want to go there because you compete against the best every day. That’s just how you get better. I think it’s good feeling a little pressure from the back, and that just pushes me harder to put more pressure on the guys in front of me.”

Listed at six-foot and 170 pounds, Hirose spent his summer trying to get stronger and a little heavier. He skated in a pro group in Calgary. 

He said the biggest takeaway from his seven-game cameo last April is “there’s no bottom end to the lineup” — that there are no weak players in the NHL and even fourth-line forwards and third-pairing defencemen have superior skills.

Hirose watched as the Canucks added Soucy, Cole and Irwin in July, but said the influx of talent and experience didn’t surprise him or change his mindset.

“I don’t think it really changed anything for me,” he said. “I kind of had a feeling that that was going to happen with the exit meetings (last season). They said: ‘Just be ready to go; it’s going to be a lot more competitive next year.’ At the end of the day, everybody’s trying to get better every year, so if that means bringing in new guys, that’s great. A more competitive environment, I’m all for that.”

The Canucks fell to the Jets 3-2 in shootout on Sunday and will end the Young Stars Classic Monday against the Oilers at the South Okanagan Events Centre.

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