By Tom Hunter (@)
Let’s get this out of the way right from the start, you’re going to hear people call Nic Hague a ‘shut down’ defender, or compare him to other big guys that are expected to be defense-first players – ignore it.
Yes Nic Hague is a is 6’6, 210 lbs and yes he plays with an edge to his game that coaches like to see from a defenseman his size – but Nic Hague is so much more than just a defensive stopper.
In junior, Hague’s size helps give him an advantage that won’t have the same impact in the NHL. He’s always the biggest guy on the ice, and that reach/strength allows him to neutralize opponents in a way that won’t necessarily be as effective against smarter, more talented players. That said, given the time to develop both physically and mentally, Hague could get to a place where he is recognized as a two-way, top-4 defender in the NHL
Don’t misconstrue the critique of his game, Hague is a top-end defender that has the tools to be a very good NHLer – he just isn’t the kind of guy you should draft expecting one day play against the opposition’s top line every shift.
There is some Erik Gudbranson in Hague in that a team might draft him very high, only to get a different player than they expected when he finally settles in as an NHL player. He’s a big kid who has a very high probability of being a long-time NHLer – he just might get drafted a little too high by a star struck general manager. He’s the kind of defenseman that NHL coaches and old-school executives drool over and that will give him a long leash to develop his game.
Hague’s biggest strength is his shot. He has a cannon from the blue line and is one of the most dangerous powerplay options in the CHL. A one-timer from Hague is something that opponents know is coming and yet have a very hard time stopping. To say he’s like Shea Weber might be lofty praise, but that’s exactly how Hague looks on the powerplay.
It’s a shot that has him sitting fourth in the OHL in goals per game among defenders, and one that his head coach in Mississauga believes is already at a professional level:
“We’re asking him to shoot a lot because he’s got a pro-level shot. There’s no question about it. He’s got a quick release, it’s a heavy, heavy shot. You ask the goalies, it hurts. It’s hard to get traffic in front of the net in practice when Nic is shooting because if the forwards get hit with it, it stings.”
Along with his shot, Hague is also a pretty good skater for his size. When he gets moving, he’s got the ability to step up and create an odd-man rush. He’s still a little awkward on his skates but he’s got a long stride that allows him to keep up with his speedier teammates.
Hague has a decent first pass but is better when he starts the breakout himself, looking for teammates through the neutral zone. Using his long reach to break up plays allows Hague to create a transition from defense to offense very effectively.
Hague currently sits third among draft eligible defensemen in primary points per game played. He has an offensive side to his game that makes him a very intriguing prospect and one that should contribute more than just the ‘defensive defender’ label that is usually given to a guy his size.
On the defensive side of the puck is where Hague’s size becomes most advantageous. He’s 6’6″ (6’9″ on skates) and will always be one of the tallest players on the ice – with that comes a reach that is very disruptive in the defensive zone. Hague has good stick work and great gap control, two things that will help to mitigate other deficiencies in his game.
Right now, most of Hague’s most of weaknesses are between the ears. Many have labeled him a ‘shutdown’ guy, because of his size and physicality. To be a true shutdown defender, you have to have the instincts and awareness to capitalize on your physical gifts – Hague hasn’t necessarily fully figured this out yet. His long reach and physical strength allow him to cover up holes in his defensive game – something that is a lot easier to do in junior than at the NHL.
Hague’s decision making and positioning in his own zone leave a little to be desired. He has a tendency to make bad passes when under pressure and is going to have to learn to think the game a little quicker in order to be a major impact in the NHL.
In fairness to him, Hague plays for a team that has a somewhat disjointed style. Mississauga is not the best place to properly judge how a player works within a system – the way Sean Day is playing since being traded to Windsor is proof of this.
Hague’s physical weaknesses can be chalked up to a kid growing to almost 6’6 before the age of 17. He’s a lanky and awkward kid that can stand to be stronger on the puck and on his skates. This will come, it’s just a matter of figuring out his own body whenever he stops growing. Adding a little muscle to his huge frame is something that would elevate Hague’s game when he makes it to the NHL.
When it comes down to it, Hague’s biggest flaw is inconsistency – as is the case with most players his age. The mental errors in his game come and go, and as he grows up and becomes more consistent you’ll see the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses.
Hague is likely to be drafted in the middle third of this summer’s draft. Maybe even higher since he’s a much better player than Logan Stanley, whom the Winnipeg Jets traded up to select at #18 just last year. He’s got the size and tools that scream NHLer – he’ll be there one day, it’s just a matter of how high up a team’s depth chart he ends up.
Hague is a bit of a late bloomer. He’s improved dramatically over the past few years so a lack of hockey awareness can be excused. His size and shot alone will get Hague drafted early and buy him the time to develop the rest of his game.
Put in the right system and given the time to learn – both his body and the game – Hague has the potential to grow into an all-around defender that coaches will rely upon – especially on the powerplay.
The earlier comparison to Erik Gudbranson is likely a low-end – Hague will be at least that. When you watch him play, you might see a game similar to that of Cody Ceci in Ottawa – except with a left-handed shot.
When all is said and done, Nic Hague likely projects to be a top-4 defenseman that will be a key part to his team’s first powerplay unit. It will be interesting to see if the team that drafts his shows the patience and gives him the time necessary to develop properly. There will be the temptation to rush him, given his size and the fact that parts of his game are already NHL ready – something that might end up being a mistake. Given the time and patience, Hague definitely has the potential to turn into the big-bodied all-around defender that any NHL team would clamour for.