Nicolas Hague started the season playing for the Mississauga Steelheads in the OHL. He was eventually given the team’s captaincy and led the Steelheads in scoring with 35 goals and 78 points in 67 games.
Those might have been his final 67 junior games.
Now that Hague is considered eligible for the minors — the AHL and ECHL don’t gain rights to Canadian junior players until they turn 20, or if they turn 20 before the end of the calendar year (their age 19 year) — he’s ready to stay with the Chicago Wolves. So far, he’s earned his spot.
“That’s my goal. Even though I’m eligible to go back for another year — I don’t want to say I don’t want to go back, but I want to start my professional career. I want to play with these guys where I have to challenge myself every day to be better. Being here, being around these guys, its already helped me so much and I’ve only been here for a week and a half. I can only imagine being here for a full season. That’s where I want to be. I want to be playing pro, that’s where my mind is at, that's where I want to be for next year.”
As the Wolves prepare for their first-round series against the Rockford Ice Hogs, Hague is practicing with Jake Bischoff, another Vegas Golden Knights defensive prospect. Bischoff has earned a full-time role on the Wolves’ top pairing, and as it appears, Hague might join him there.
“Obviously [Bischoff] is an unbelievable player. He’s been really good with me, talking me through different plays here and there. He was a guy I got to know really well at Vegas’ camp. He was my roommate. There’s already a bit of chemistry there. He makes things easy for me here.”
Bischoff isn’t the only defenseman playing a role in Hague’s development so far this season.
“Honestly, collectively as a group, the whole defensive core has been awesome with me. Guys like Jason Garrison, Griffin Reinhart, they’ve experienced all levels of play. Obviously, Garrison’s played so many years in the NHL. Talking to guys like that, picking their brains a little bit. When I came here, I wanted to be a sponge and take as much away as possible. Really use it as a learning experience. Being around the rink with those guys, seeing how they handle themselves as pros, it’s really helped me. Those are guys who have been playing for so long. Being around them, all it does is help.”
Through five games, Hague scored a secondary assist, on a goal created by Keegan Kolesar and scored by Scooter Vaughan, who will be on the Wolves’ fourth line going into the playoffs. Hague has created chemistry not only with the more defensive-minded Wolves but with the offensive forwards as well, getting time on the power play.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good. My first game, I didn’t know what to expect, I just wanted to get a feel for it, keep it simple. Wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing anything too crazy. As the games have gone on, I’ve gotten more confident each time. It’s a huge confidence boost builder when [Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson] can put me out there on the power play and he can trust me in those positions. I want to be the guy who can be relied on in every situation and that’s what I’m trying to create for myself here. It’s been really good for me to get out in every situation, get a feel for the puck, and experience all sides of the game.”
Thompson was also complimentary of Hague’s play so far this season.
“I think he’s done a good job,” he said. “I think he looks good out there, and he’s feeling more comfortable, and they’ve been hard situations too. We’re playing some really good hockey teams. The last couple games, the lineups haven’t been as strong as they will be, guys have been resting, and he’s stepped up and played really well. I think he’s taken advantage of the opportunity and is getting better each day.”
Where Hague really shines is the penalty kill. He’s able to get to the puck quickly, clear it with haste, and make it hard on the opposing man advantage to gain the zone again. That ability likely translated over from the OHL.
The biggest difference between the two?
“The biggest difference has been the strength of guys in corners. It’s just having better body position and using my stick to my advantage. Making sure guys don’t out-muscle me in the corner. Guys are a lot stronger here and it’s a lot different than junior and it’s something I’ve had to adjust to.”
The biggest concern about Hague has been his skating, but he moves as well as anyone his size. Hague is listed at 6’6”, but he’s more like 6’10” on the ice. He’s an NBA player on ice skates, so his movement is more about getting to a place where he can secure the puck with his long reach. This he is very good at.
Hague isn’t what you would call fast, but he’s mobile, agile and can get the puck off opposing forwards, even at quick speeds. Still, he compares himself to defensemen who make a difference at both ends of the ice.
“For me, at the NHL level, over the past couple of years, I’ve started watching big, tall defensemen. I love watching Victor Hedman, Colton Parayko, that style of game they play at the NHL level is what I played at the junior level. I want to be able to translate that game into mine at the pro level. They’re big guys who use their sticks really well and contribute at both ends of the ice. I think that’s my game as well. I love to watch them and pick parts of their game and translate it to mine. Hopefully, I can learn from them and use it for myself.”
Hague is developing nicely, getting better every game. He’ s getting more time on ice as he plays more games, and that’s had a good impact, as Hague has a lot of energy. Getting a fresh defenseman at Hague’s talent level, before the playoffs, has been huge for the Wolves, and it’s helped them win four of their final five games.
Hague himself said of his development: “Every game I think I’ve gotten a little bit better. The coaching staff has been awesome to me, watching video after games. I didn’t know if I was going to play when I got here but I’ve worked myself into a position now where I’ve gotten into a couple of games. Watching back over my games and being out in practice with these guys, getting my reps in, I think that’s going to help me. The fact that I can go back in the dressing room and watch the games back with the coaches, that’s been huge for me. You can’t always see everything during the game when it’s happening, but watching it back you can slow it down, look at your options, and see what you could do differently. That’s been huge for me, and good for my development here.”
Hague knows that it’s going to take work, not just in the postseason, but in the offseason, to make the transition to the AHL. That’s work he’s willing to put in.
“I need to take away the stuff that I can take into the summer and improve on for next year. Next year I want to be playing pro hockey and being here has helped me learn what it takes. Take areas of my game that I think I can improve on at this level and that’s going to be my main focus this summer, so I can come back stronger than ever.”