ARLINGTON, Va. -- Taro Hirose surprised even himself during his audition with the Detroit Red Wings at the end of last season.
After tying for the NCAA lead with 50 points (15 goals, 35 assists) in 36 games as a junior for Michigan State University, Hirose signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Red Wings as an undrafted free agent March 12. He made his NHL debut a week later and finished the season with seven points (one goal, six assists) in 10 games.
"You hope you can do well and produce points, but I wasn't really expecting to do that well and put up points like that," Hirose said at the 11th annual NHLPA Rookie Showcase last week. "But at the same time, you want to have that mindset that you can do that, and I proved to myself that I can be effective at that level."
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However, that doesn't mean Hirose is heading into his first NHL training camp believing he has a spot on the Red Wings opening roster locked up. The 23-year-old forward has had to repeatedly prove himself to get this far and knows he'll have to do it again to keep his job in Detroit.
That process will begin at the 2019 NHL Prospect Tournament, which begins Friday at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City, Michigan, and continue into the Red Wings training camp from Sept. 13-16.
"You definitely have to earn it, so I'm not going in with any sort of expectation I'll be on the team," Hirose said. "I just have to play my game and show them that I should be there and give them reasons to not send me down."
To prepare for camp, Hirose spent the summer in Detroit training with a group of Red Wings veterans that included forwards Dylan Larkin, Luke Glendening and Darren Helm, and fellow young players such as defenseman Dennis Cholowski and forwards Givani Smith, Joseph Veleno and Filip Zadina.
The Red Wings had suggested that Hirose come to Detroit to train prior to their development camp in June, but the Calgary, Alberta, native decided to stick around for the rest of the summer.
"I felt comfortable with the workout and the skates we were doing, so I wanted to stay," Hirose said. "It's been really good just being able to work out and get to know some of the other guys and skate with them. I feel like I've had a really productive summer."
Video: DET@NYR: Hirose notches first point on Nielsen's goal
While at development camp, Hirose had the chance to chat with Steve Yzerman, who was named general manager on April 19, replacing Ken Holland. Yzerman captained Detroit to the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998 and 2002 and helped build the Tampa Bay Lightning into a Stanley Cup contender as their GM before stepping down prior to last season.
Hirose is excited about what Yzerman can do for the Red Wings' rebuild after they failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past three seasons.
"Just the buzz around Detroit and the faith that everyone has in him is unbelievable, and he'll definitely help the team in the future," Hirose said. "I talked to him a couple times briefly at development camp and sort of got to pick his brain a little bit and got to know what kind of guy he is."
Although Hirose made a good impression at the end of last season and at development camp, one of Detroit's suggestions for his offseason included something he's heard a lot: getting stronger and faster. Hirose, who also wanted to work on his shot, has learned to be productive despite his lack of size (5-foot-10, 160 pounds).
"As a smaller guy, you sort of learn to dodge hits or be slippery," Hirose said. "For me, it's sort of outthinking the opponent, thinking ahead of the play and thinking two steps ahead just so you don't get caught in those situations where you're getting into a strength battle with a bigger guy. Those aren't the situations, obviously, I want to be in."
As a result, Hirose looks up to Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau, who also made the transition from college hockey at Boston College and has excelled in the NHL despite his stature (5-9, 165). From Gaudreau, who tied with Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon for seventh in the League with 99 points (36 goals, 63 assists) last season, Hirose knows it is possible for smaller players to succeed in the NHL.
He believes he can do it, too.
"I've never been the biggest or strongest guy," Hirose said. "That always brings up question marks of, 'Can you play at the next level?' From junior to college was like that. You have to adapt and find ways to be able to play your game and put up points. It will be the same thing going into the NHL or the AHL this year, and I'm excited for that challenge."