Throughout his career, Taro Hirose was told he was too small and not fast enough to be successful.
Fortunately for him -- and the Detroit Red Wings -- he didn't listen to those people.
After leading the NCAA in scoring in his junior season at Michigan State, Hirose was one of the most sought-after college hockey free agents and he chose to sign a two-year entry level contract with the Red Wings earlier this week.
"In my WHL draft year, I was 130 pounds and about 5-foot-7 and that might even be generous," the 22-year-old from Calgary explained. "I simply wasn't strong enough at the time to stand out against bigger, older, stronger guys. But over time, I grew a little bit and was able to put on some more weight, but sometimes there's just not much you can do about your size so I chose to focus on improving my skills and learning more about the game. I hoped the work I put in in those aspects would help make up for anything I lacked in size and I focused on playing the game the right way and having the tools needed to make it so that my size really wouldn't be a factor."
Now 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, Hirose has done just that, notching 50 points in 36 games this season for a career total of 116 points in 106 games wearing the green and white.
"When I took the job at Michigan State two years ago, I watched video of every game from the year before and you could see he was just a fantastic hockey player," MSU head coach Danton Cole said. "He thinks the game well and can make plays at a high pace with the brain and the hands working that fast together … he's just been really good for us and a lot of fun to have here and he's going to do great things in Detroit."
Jiri Fischer, director of player evaluation for the Red Wings, agrees. That's why he pursued him as a free agent.
"We've been watching him for several years and he's driven the offense at Michigan State, particularly this year. He's got the best hockey IQ and is the most poised player with the puck in college hockey this season. He really stays calm under pressure and shows that he can draw a defender to him and then move the puck quickly, creating time and space for his teammates and even getting open again himself if they need to pass it back," he explained.
"He ran the half-wall on the power play as good, if not better than, anyone else in college hockey this year. He's got a history of leading his team offensively -- even in Tier II -- and being one of the top scorers and now he's done the same in college hockey and dominated offensively and I really like his potential to figure it out again at the NHL level," Fischer continued. "As good as he is, there's still lots of room for him to improve, especially with his strength and explosiveness. We haven't seen the best from him yet and that's pretty exciting."
During his freshman year, Hirose heard from a friend that a scout really liked his game and said it was an eye-opener for him.
"At that point, I knew I was doing some good things and if I kept doing them maybe more people would come to watch me and I might have a chance to do something big," he explained. "That's when I was invited to the Leafs development camp and that's when felt a big change in my attitude and my confidence level. I put a lot of work in that summer and brought that confidence into my sophomore season and that's when my game took a really big step and I put up 42 points that year."
Last summer, he chose to attend Detroit's development camp because he was impressed by their long track record of developing players and helping them reach their full potential, like Justin Abdelkader and Dylan Larkin. He also felt there might be a chance to sign with them at some point and took the opportunity to get to know everyone in the organization. He said the experience was a big factor in his decision making process earlier this week.
"Jiri Fischer did a really good job of explaining my game and having someone who views you the same way you view yourself is really important," Hirose said. "When I talked with (general manager) Ken Holland, he said a lot of the same things and showed that he wanted to invest in me as a player and with my development and I was just really comfortable with them and trust that they will help guide me into being the best hockey player I can be. I'm really excited about what the future holds."
As much as everyone likes to focus on his exceptional offensive skills, Cole is quick to point out the merits of his defensive game as well.
"His instincts are just as good on the other side of the puck and he's our best penalty killer," the coach stated. "His stick placement is good. His attack angles are good and he understands how to deflect and do a lot of really good defensive things at a very high level and I think that will also help him at the next level because if (Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill) can't trust him defensively, he won't play. But it's not just the eye test. When you look at the stats, the goals for were real high for us with him on the ice and the goals against were tremendously low, especially for a guy who plays as much as he does."
When you lead any team in scoring, you know next year teams will be gunning to shut you down. That's why, at the end of last season, Hirose and Cole had a conversation about what he needed to focus on in the summer to put him in a position to be one of the best players in college hockey for another year.
"We really analyzed his game and, that year, he scored a lot off the rush. So his goals were to be able to attack more offensively and protect the puck better to spend more time in the offensive zone and make more plays," Cole explained. "I also wanted him to be aggressive with his back pressure and stripping pucks just like Pavel Datsyuk and being just as good in that area as he is on the forecheck. It's little areas like that that I thought he could improve and he's done a really good job with them."
Hirose also wanted to work on his shot so he'd feel more comfortable using it instead of passing to his teammates, as he likes to do.
"I'm definitely a pass-first kind of guy," he said with a smile. "I'm sure that fans at Michigan State could tell you they pulled their hair out a few times when I was in the slot and I should have shot it, but instead I passed it. I'm always looking for my teammates and trying to set them up and help them be a better player, but I've worked hard on improving my shot from all over the ice and am a lot more confident with it now and will take it if I see one open."
He continued: "But, as good as things are going right now, I don't think I'm anywhere near the best version of myself as a player and that's what drives me and keeps me motivated in the summer and during practices. I know there's lots of room to improve and I want to put in the effort to do that."
Hirose will finish the regular season in Detroit and try to soak up as much insight into what it takes to be a successful pro in order to help him prepare this summer to earn a roster spot next season.
"He will learn a lot being with the team for the rest of the season, but all of our prospects have highly individualized summer training programs and his will be designed to help him become even more powerful," Fischer said. "That will be key for him to be able to gain separation and keep it at the pro level because it's very hard to hold on to the puck for more than three to five seconds at the NHL level and it's always an adjustment coming from juniors or college or Europe. We know it will be the same for Taro, but he has so much potential. We will help him through it."
When asked if he saw his career unfolding like this, Hirose paused and chuckled at the question before responding: "Not at all. I thought for sure I'd play for four years, get my degree and maybe I'd find a spot in the AHL. I always believed in myself and thought I could make it to the NHL some day, but I can't say I ever thought I'd be playing as well as I have and earn an opportunity like this at this point in my career.
"This is my dream and I'm going to do my best to make the most of it."