Nicolas Hague could wind up being the first OHL defenceman taken in the 2017 NHL draft. He’ll definitely be the biggest.
A 6’6, 215-pound left-shot defenceman for the Mississauga Steelheads, Hague is ranked in the 14-21 range according to most of the prominent draft ranking services. ISS Hockey placed him as high as 14th, HockeyProspect.com ranked him 18th, and Bob McKenzie put him at 21st in his mid-term rankings. Craig Button ranked him all the way down at 55th in his list released in late March.
It’s certain that Hague’s recent playoff performances did his draft stock some favours. He logged major minutes on the Steelheads blue line and played the best hockey of his junior career thus far during their trip to the OHL Finals, which included a sweep of the one-seed Peterborough Petes in the Eastern Conference Final.
Two things leap off the page with the Kitchener native: His size and his offensive production from the blue line. He tallied 46 points in 65 regular season games — 15th among OHL defencemen in points scoring, and second among the 17 and 18-year-old defencemen eligible for the draft – before adding 12 points in 18 playoff games. His 18 goals and 204 shots on goal ranked him third among OHL defencemen in goal scoring (first among draft eligibles) and fourth in shots on goal (first among draft eligibles).
According to the Steelheads’ coordinator of hockey analytics Zac Urback, Hague also shows well according to manual tracking metrics. “At 17, to post the numbers he has is impressive,” Urback told Maple Leafs Hot Stove. “One of the better entry deniers in the OHL.”
In talking to a variety of scouts about Hague, the positive themes were consistent: he’s big and plays big, his reach, his heavy shot, his vision and offensive instincts, his intangibles (he was voted the OHL’s top scholastic player last season, and studies sports management at the University of Toronto), the steady improvement he’s shown since he entered the OHL.
On the other side of the ledger, there have been question marks about his footwork and offensive upside at the next level.
From Brock Otten of OHL prospects:
“If you saw Hague in the playoffs, you’ve seen him at his absolute best; the best hockey he’s played as an OHL’er thus far. And I think that’s going to resonate pretty heavily with NHL scouts. There were times during the regular season where watching Hague play was extremely frustrating. He had become prone to defensive zone turnovers and was having a real tough time with the forecheck, as he wasn’t keeping his feet moving and his decision making was a tad too slow. But he’s really cleaned that up this postseason. I think it’s still an area of concern for the future, but his improvement late in the year is encouraging. As an offensive player, Hague is certainly not typical. He’s not the type to consistently lead an explosive rush up ice or appear dynamic in nature. But once the Steelheads gain entry into the offensive zone, he’s a very, very efficient player. He’s got one heck of a point shot, but he’s also very good at sliding down into scoring lanes, catching opposing forwards puck watching. Hague is also not afraid to pinch in deep to maintain puck possession, similar to a 4th forward. He uses his size and strength exceptionally well along the wall to extend plays. This is similar to the way Brent Burns has become so effective as an offensive player in the NHL today. Defensively, Hague has really developed quite the mean streak and it’s made him very difficult to play against. He uses his reach and mobility very well to defend the rush, but uses his size and strength to defend the corners and the front of the net. Again, this postseason, he’s been absolutely hammering anyone who dares try to go to the net when he’s on the ice. While I’m not entirely sure how much his offensive game translates to the NHL level, and I do think the turnovers and decision making are a concern, there’s enough there to suggest that he could develop into a quality top 4 defender at the NHL level.”
In an interview with Maple Leafs Hot Stove, Dan Marr of NHL Central Scouting touched on Hague’s skating as an area for improvement:
“Hague is a very accomplished yet intriguing prospect as a second year OHL player. It’s not often that you find a 6’6″ / 215 lb defensemen who can consistently contribute offensively with high end hockey sense and an NHL shot. The intangibles he brings with his size and reach, along with his competitiveness, drive and composure add up to a promising NHL prospect. It’s often said that bigger players need extra time to develop and in Nick’s particular case, I’ve heard contemplated that for the next level he may require a skating upgrade and some work on his defensive game. However, you can’t teach the intangibles that Nick possesses, but you can improve skating and teach defense. Throughout this season and most importantly through the playoffs, you can see that Nick has elevated his game and with continued coaching and experience he will be able to develop into a solid NHL defenseman.”
In talking to Otten about the possibility of the Leafs taking Hague with their 17th overall selection, he opined that there may not be much separating him, in terms of upside, from some of the defencemen projected in the mid-second round or later.
To Otten’s point about Hague not being the most dynamic puck rusher, he doesn’t show as well in the zone entry data as he does in zone denials. “His zone entry numbers aren’t quite as good as his exit/denials,” said Urback. “They’re solid — just not elite.”
“On the breakouts, he’s fairly proficient, generally opting for controlled exits with a high success rate,” Urback continued. “He is unique in the sense that he does his best work with the puck set up in the offensive zone, but other than that he’s just a very solid defensive defenceman.”
To get a better sense of Hague’s game and its progression over the past two seasons, I spoke with (now former) Mississauga Steelheads GM, James Boyd, during the OHL Finals.
Interview: James Boyd on Nicolas Hague
The Steelheads made a great pick in the second round with Nicolas Hague. I was looking at his numbers in the Greater Ontario Junior League in minor midget. He went from 11 points in 43 games in the regular season to outscoring his regular season with 12 points in 10 games in the playoffs. Did you guys see him turn a corner as the year went on?
Boyd: What you see with Nick is steady improvement. When we drafted him 30th, our scouts were banging the table for him. He was a lot higher on our list. He was drafted 30 for a reason – he had grown an awful lot, and he was a little bit uncoordinated. Slowly, as he was playing that year in the GOJHL, he gained his coordination back and gained some strength and began to improve. He really went from a rookie in the league to one of their most valued players there and played a key role in a playoff series for them. The next year, he stepped into the OHL and played big minutes right away from game one. He is a player who is continuously improving. A lot of it has to do with his strength, which continues to come. Big guys like that take a little bit longer for their dexterity and their puck skills, but he’s definitely ahead of the curve.
Was it sort of his raw package of tools – 6’6, some signs of a burgeoning offensive game – that drew your guys to him?
Boyd: I think it was his vision. One of the things that always came up in our meetings is that his thought process is sound. The plays that he is making or he was trying to make were always the right plays. It was just a matter of getting the strength and coordination to complete the play. There are some other intangibles there. The team that he played on – the Kitchener minor midgets – weren’t ultra-competitive and were definitely in tough against some of the GTHL teams, especially down the stretch into the OHL Cup, but they found a way to win games and be competitive. A lot of that had to do with the players they relied on most, and Nick was one of them.
It’s that offensive side to his game that is so intriguing and unique coming from a kid who is 6’6. How have you seen that side of his game evolve over the past couple of seasons? His numbers took a nice step forward this year.
Boyd: I mentioned the size and strength component, but practicing every day has been a big benefit for Nick. He takes advantage of all of our skills sessions. We have a program here that is skills-based. He puts in the extra time with our coaching staff. He’s willing to put in the work and that’s been a big factor in his improvement. I think a lot of those point totals come with his shot; he’s got a booming point shot that he’s able to get through. The vision has always been there. A lot of it has to do with how much he’s playing. Ice time is definitely a factor; he’s playing a tonne of minutes for us this year. Who he is moving the puck to is a big factor as well; he’s getting the puck to guys who are able to put the puck in the net. He’s playing less defense this year just by virtue of our forwards being a stronger group. We have a lot more offensive zone time. I think that is reflected in his numbers. But I would say that last year, with a young team, it took a quality, quality Barrie Colts team to the brink in Game 7, and Nick was equally as valuable even though the point totals weren’t there.
The tendency at first blush would be to look at him in terms of his size and say he’s a shutdown guy at the next level. He’s got the bomb on the point and likes to jump into the attack, though. How would you categorize him in terms of his pro projection and upside?
Boyd: I think he’s a good all-around player. I think that time will tell where he ends up and how his game continues to evolve, but I think if there is a projection from today, I think he’s a very good all-around player with an excellent chance to have an excellent pro career. With Nick, the attitude is excellent, he’s a very intelligent kid, and his priorities are in the right place. He loves the game. It’s been my experience that those guys end up having a long career in hockey.
He likes to jump up into the attack and be that second layer – I’ve seen him score a number of goals as the trailer sneaking in unmarked – and he’s eager to get involved below the hashmarks on the cycle. I also saw he had a really nice end-to-end rush against Kingston in December where he scored on a wraparound. How much can he evolve in terms of rushing and carrying the puck? Does he have that instinct? Have you seen his confidence grow in that area?
Boyd: He has that [instinct]. He’s got excellent awareness and he’s got excellent game awareness. He knows when to jump in and when not. You’ll see him when we’re down by a couple of goals and he takes some more chances, which we like to see. When we’ve got a one-goal lead, he plays more conservative. He is well aware of who is on the ice and how much time is on the clock and does a good job of recognizing the opportunities. As his game continues to evolve, being involved in the attack is a key component, both in the offensive zone and off the rush.
Can you give me a good sense of how his role evolved this year in terms of workload, assignments, and partners throughout?
Boyd: In his first year, he came into the league and there was definitely a learning process. He’s really earned every responsibility that he has. He was in a trial-by-fire early on and quickly figured it out and earned the trust of the coaching staff. I’d say from Christmas on last year he was playing in key matchups against key players. When I look at some of those assignments, you’re talking playing against leading scorers in the league and top quality junior players. I think it’s rare for a guy defenceman, even a guy in his draft year, to be taking on those responsibilities and doing an admirable job.
He’s played with everybody. He’s played the left side and the right side.
How does he fare on his offside?
Boyd: He’s just fine. He’s got the dexterity. When the puck gets in tight to his body, for a big guy, he does a great job of corralling it and making plays.
His size and reach are major assets defensively, but there has been some criticism about his feet. How does he defend against the smaller, quicker forwards off the rush, or if they get him turning down low?
Boyd: I think it’s something that continues to improve. Over the course of the year, there has been a lot of criticism about his feet or skating. That’s the number one thing that people kind of focus on. I like to judge skating by how often a player gets beat, and there are not too many times where he gets beat off the rush or caught flat-footed. For a guy who is as aggressive as he is in the neutral zone – and that’s the way that we like to play – and in stopping the rush, I think he does an excellent job. I think his feet are just fine.
Physically, is he done growing do you think? It’s hard to believe he could get any taller. How have you seen things like his lower body strength and coordination progress the past few years?
Boyd: The coordination, definitely. I don’t know if he’s done growing. He’s definitely going to put on a lot of weight. He’s going to carry an extra 15 or 20 pounds by the time he’s done. He’s been continually growing since the first time I saw him play. It’s tough to say. Those teenagers that sprout up – they sometimes take longer to fill out or throw on that extra weight, but the way I look at it is he’s big enough now to be very effective. He’s going to end up heavier. I don’t know if he ends up taller, but he’ll be heavier. The coordination, the core strength – it’s all improving daily.
Do you think he’s still learning how to fully leverage his physical gifts and still coming into his own frame?
Boyd: As he gets stronger, there is a confidence to his game. His positioning has always been excellent, but he uses his size to his advantage. He uses his big stick. He’s able to pin guys down low and stop the cycle. Even offensively, you referenced a wraparound play where he used his long reach in and around the net. His game is built around his size. He’s a big guy and he plays like a big guy. I think that’s his number one asset.
Stylistically, does he remind you of anyone?
Boyd: Geez, I can’t even think of a 6’6 guy who coordinates a power play.
Boyd: You know what, that’s a good comparison. I remember Cody Franson and saw him play junior hockey. That’s probably a fair comparison in terms of a guy that size who has the dexterity and the skill with the puck.