The Chicago Wolves are off to a great start to the season. With an 18-9-4 record, the Wolves are first in the Central Division. A shiny new defense that includes rookies Zach Whitecloud, Erik Brannstrom and Nicolas Hague is a huge part of that success.
When watching the Wolves, especially now while Brannstrom is off captaining Sweden in the World Juniors, Hague is clearly one of the brightest lights. Yes, it might be because he was the first to score in a recent game I attended, but his positioning on that goal — and throughout that game — impressed me in a way that is hard to come by, especially at the AHL level.
Hague won the Max Kaminsky Trophy (awarded annually to the Ontario Hockey League’s most outstanding defenseman) last season and led the league in goals from a blueliner with 35. He is third amongst defensemen (first amongst rookie d-men) in goals in the AHL this season with nine. His goal scoring prowess and offensive ability is undeniable.
Said Wolves’ head coach Rocky Thompson: “He’s been playing that way his whole life. Those things are just something he now, after being that type of player, he can read it and he goes, so he makes good decisions there.”
But Hague’s talents are not limited to his offensive production. He’s gotten better as a skater over the last season. That was his biggest criticism when he was drafted and he has overcome it to a large degree.
His pairing with Whitecloud has been one of the better ones for Chicago this season. “Nic’s great at being that second-wave guy in the offensive zone and creating those offensive chances,” says Whitecloud, Hague’s defensive partner for the past 20 games.
“It’s been nice to play with him more consistently because we’re starting to read off each other well and we talk to each other a lot out there and help each other out,” Hague says.
That pairing has also been relied on in all situations and both players can play on every unit. That’s been good for both of their development.
“Ultimately, that’s what every player wants to do is just be reliable,” says Whitecloud, “and we’re just trying to earn everyone’s trust that they can put us out and we’ll go do the job and execute every single time.”
The road ahead
To reach Vegas, Hague will have to focus on becoming the defenseman that the Golden Knights saw when they drafted him — a huge presence with a hell of a shot, sure-fire offensive instincts, and the potential to become more than competent in his own end.
That’s what Hague wants to work towards being, as well.
“Body positioning, making sure I’m on the right side of the puck, and my stick — it’s one of my biggest assets, a lot longer than most people’s — making sure it’s in the right position,” Hague said.
Hague has a few areas he said he wants to work on the rest of the season, including the continued development of his skating so that he can adjust to the uptempo speed of the pro game. It is key for Hague to grow his skill set to match or exceed what he’ll need in the NHL.
“[I’m working on] being able to make quicker plays, read plays off the rush,” said the 20-year-old.
Luckily, Hague has blueliners around him going through the same thing. Brannstrom, Whitecloud and Dylan Coghlan are all hoping to make the NHL someday and are in their first full season in the AHL. Jake Bischoff is in just his second. The most senior defensemen that play regularly are journeymen Griffin Reinhart and Zac Leslie, both born as recently as Jan. ‘94.
“We’re in a cool situation here where we were all drafted or signed by Vegas around the same time, and we all have the same goal in mind,” says Hague. “We all want to play in Vegas one day, and it’s definitely nice to share that with them.”
Before that, however, Hague has another goal in mind. That’s taking on the AHL and preparing with the team for a different challenge than making the NHL.
“The better the team does, the better we’re all going to do as individuals. If we go on a deep run here, that’s going to open up eyes at the big club, and that’s the end goal, to be called up there,” Hague said.
“Hopefully we can all get a shot later down the road.”