Akito Hirose VAN prospect

PENTICTON, British Columbia -- Though Akito Hirose used the tail end of last season as a showcase for the Vancouver Canucks, the defenseman prospect understands his performance guarantees nothing as he heads into his first NHL training camp.

"You've got to kind of keep it realistic with yourself and realize it's the end of the season and those guys had played 80 games and they're out of the playoffs," Hirose said at the Young Stars Classic this week. "It's going to be another step up at the beginning of this year because everybody's healthy, everybody's hungry, everybody's fully rested from the summer. I think it'll be another step up.

"I think for everybody, no matter where you play, it's control what you can control. I can't control how good other people are. I can only control how good I am. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm excited to see what it'll be like."

Hirose opted to forego his senior year at Minnesota State Mankato and signed a one-year, entry-level contract with the Canucks on March 29. The 24-year-old played each of their final seven games of the season and had three assists, four penalty minutes and four shots on goal while averaging 17:27 of ice time.

"Often you can see a guy comes in, a college free agent like that at the end of the year, gets the game and leaves the city going back home thinking, 'That wasn't that bad, I can do that' and those are the players that usually end up in a bit of trouble," Canucks assistant general manager Ryan Johnson said. "They come back to a ramped-up training camp and competition. Those guys welcoming you in the dressing room are now trying to beat you out of a spot. It's a whole different mentality. Good players in that position have enough self-awareness to know the reality of the situation."

Hirose showed enough to earn a two-year contract July 2.

"He's a smooth skater," Johnson said. "His defensive poise and ability to move pucks to exit the zone [impresses] and he gets up ice and makes things happen at the offensive blue line as well. Organizationally, our [defense] core is a group we're trying to improve. We need certain puck-movers to allow our forwards to get better and to spend less time in our own zone. He was a guy we identified that fit to what we want to do.

"He's not an oversized player, but he showed he could handle the size and speed of an NHL forward. That was a great experience for him. He's had a good offseason. Now he's going to come into camp and fight for a spot."

Hirose had 27 points (four goals, 23 assists) in 38 games of his third season at Minnesota State Mankato. Though the Canucks signed defensemen Carson Soucy and Ian Cole in the offseason, they could have just six at the position under one-way contracts when camp opens. That doesn't include veteran Matt Irwin, who has played 461 NHL games for six teams and signed a one-year, two-way deal July 1, nor Guillaume Brisebois, who played 17 games for Vancouver last season and signed a two-year contract March 7.

It'll require a strong camp for Hirose (6-foot, 170 pounds) to land in the NHL instead of Abbotsford in the American Hockey League.

"It's a competitive environment," Hirose said. "I think the best players thrive in competitive environments whether it's up or down. If you look out here at the guys we have at the prospect tournament or the guys we have in Vancouver right now, the defense is pretty deep all around.

"Everybody pushes everyone all around, whether it's me pushing the guys already in the lineup or the younger guys pushing me. It's good either way."