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2017 NHL Draft: Why the Leafs should draft Nicolas Hague

A supersize defender who should get serious consideration.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds v Mississauga Steelheads Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images

If you’re anything like me, you have a pattern once draft season rolls around. You read through draft reports and numbers, and sooner or later one prospect jumps out at you. He’s in range, he has a special combination of skills, his numbers are exciting, and damn it, you just like him more than the other guys. Even if the other guys are pretty good too.

This year, that prospect for me is Mississauga defender Nic Hague.

The Basics

Hague is a left-shooting defenceman, coming off his second year with the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads. The most immediately striking thing about Hague is that he is enormous. According to Eliteprospects, Hague comes in at 6’6” (!) and a lean 214 lbs. Leaving some room for reasonable doubt as to the precision of prospect measurements (other places have him at 6’5”), Hague is unquestionably a big bopper.

Size is still a very useful thing in the NHL — wingspan and physical strength haven’t gone out of style just because the Mitch Marners of the world have come in — but in junior it can let a player survive despite poor mobility or offence. No worries there: Nic Hague is no Coke Machine. He’s a fluid skater, and he produces a ton of points — especially goals.

Hague’s a steady rather than a spectacular puck-mover — he makes the smart play and he’s reasonably quick, but he isn’t a sprinter or a premiere set-up man. But he shoots both very hard and in bunches, getting both his full slapper and his snapshot on and in the net. This leads to excellent goal totals.

Along with that solid production, Hague’s a good defensive defenceman who makes use of his size in a shutdown role. He’s got an edge, he’s rangy, and he’s capable at both fighting for and managing space on the ice. His penchant for penalties is a drawback, but Hague is a bonafide two-way d-man. Those are awfully nice to have.

The Numbers

 Season Team League GP G A TP PIM      Playoffs GP G A TP PIM 
 Season Team League GP G A TP PIM      Playoffs GP G A TP PIM 
 2012-2013 Kitchener Jr. Rangers Mn Mgt AAA AHMMPL 2 0 0 0 0 |
 2013-2014 Kitchener Jr. Rangers Mn Mgt AAA AHMMPL 31 3 13 16 44 | Playoffs 18 4 13 17 24 
Kitchener Jr. Rangers Mn Mgt AAA OHL Cup 4 3 0 3 12 |
Team ALLIANCE OGC-16 5 0 1 1 4 |
Kitchener Jr. Rangers Midget AAA AHMPL 3 1 1 2 0 |
 2014-2015 Team Black U17-Dev 3 1 0 1 4 |
Kitchener Dutchmen GOJHL 43 3 8 11 70 | Playoffs 10 3 9 12 20 
Canada White U17 WHC-17 5 2 0 2 4 |
 2015-2016 Team Red U18-Dev 3 0 0 0 4 |
Mississauga Steelheads OHL 66 14 10 24 84 | Playoffs 7 0 2 2 13 
Canada U18 WJC-18 7 0 2 2 4 |
 2016-2017 Mississauga Steelheads OHL 65 18 28 46 107 | Playoffs 17 1 10 11 19 
OHL All-Stars Jr Super Series 2 0 0 0 2 |
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Any way you slice it, Hague is strong on offence. You can see his overall numbers — 18 goals, 28 assists, 46 points in 65 games — but we can slice those up a bit thanks to the good people at Prospect Stats. Hague was 14th in the OHL of 180 eligible defenders in all-situations primary points, and twelve of the thirteen guys ahead of him are older than he is, usually by more than a year. In any 5v5 or all-situations point number — primary, per game, expected per 60, you name it — he ranks in the top 15 for OHL defenders.

He’s even better in goals, ranking third for OHL defenders overall and tied for third at 5v5 goals. As you’d expect from a goal-scoring d-man, Hague is a gunner, putting more than three shots a game on net. That number also puts him top-10 amongst OHL defencemen.

Hague is a producer, and unlike some d-men, he’s productive at even strength as well as on the powerplay. The numbers testify to what he can do with the puck, but aside from the flawed plus-minus number — +22 puts him second among Mississauga defenders, if you’re wondering—there aren’t really OHL stats to say what he does without it. Let’s turn to the scouting.

The Scouts

Future Considerations, who project Hague to go right on time at #17, have this lovely paragraph overviewing him:

Hague has a great mix of size, skating and skill…shuts down the oppositions’ top lines and is a driver of the play…is physical and will give that extra shot to his opponent to leave a mark and an impression for the next time…doesn’t give his man room to breathe in front of the net…not shy with stepping in to lay the body, standing up his man with a solid check…controls the gap very well with strong position and good stick work…very balanced and surprisingly mobile for a big kid, he possesses a powerful lateral step…has a strong desire to skate with the puck, keeping his head up while weighing his options and hitting his man with a pass when the timing is right…heavy point shot, but needs to shorten his wind-up…has a solid transition game as he can use his reach to take the puck away from opponent and quickly turn his sights to making the breakout pass in one fluid motion…plays a solid two-way game and has solid top-four NHL upside.

Aside from the odd yet typical scouting habit of talking with strings of ellipses, this paragraph is sterling. If you can combine brains and mobility with size and offensive production, you’re looking at one hell of a prospect.

Skating, of course, is the big question with any big man, and this box being checked is a key reason why Hague is worth a first-round pick. Ben Kerr of Last Word on Sports has a longer look at Hague’s skating:

Already measuring 6’6″ tall, Hague is a giant on the blue line. His skating is surprisingly quick for a player his size, and his stride long and fluid. He does have some problems with particularly speedy smaller forwards, but for the most part his skating is more than adequate and gets Hague to the areas of the ice he needs to be. He plays a strong two-way game and covers a lot of ground for a big man. His edge work and pivots are also good for his size, but could continue to be improved. He has surprisingly good lateral agility. In terms of strength on his skates and balance, he can continue to add muscle to his frame, but his size helps him to win board battles and clear the front of the net.

This is a very solid foundation for Hague’s skillset. He’s clearly still improving and growing into his body, but there’s a lot to like already about where he’s at — and even more about where he can go.

With that in mind, let’s move to his defensive game. PPP Managing Editor Scott Wheeler offered his thoughts on Hague’s defence:

I think the one thing that most often holds back big defenders is their pivots and their crossovers. Taller defencemen have to compensate for sluggish footwork by backing in and maintaining larger gaps than they should. This creates a tradeoff that isn't ideal where they use their sticks to avoid getting beat cleanly wide but give up the zone too easily as a consequence. Most coaches would rather a big defender allow an entry and keep the play outside than risk getting turnstiled by closing the gap too quickly when they can't make the turn if they get beat. The big thing that separates Hague from most defencemen in that regard is that he's a strong enough skater that he can use his length to close gaps and still correct for a mistake if there is one. He's good defensively in his own zone, like most defencemen are (he's a presence on the PK, he's physical in battles, etc.), but it's that solid skating that makes him a stronger defender off the rush.

Hague’s gap control is remarked upon by other sources, and it’s one of the most encouraging things about him. Hague has the strength for short-range and the wingspan for wider coverage, but being mobile enough to keep position on opposing forwards is a special thing at his size.

Turning back to offence for a moment, our own Kevin Papetti described Hague’s offensive upside primarily as a shooter rather than a passer or rusher; he credited Hague’s ability to get the shot off heavily and quickly. Overall: “He's huge and plays with an edge, plus he's a fine skater considering his size. Add in a plus shot and you have a respectable #17 pick.”

And indeed, right around #17 is where Hague tends to be ranked. The general theme of scouting commentary from outlets like ISS is that Hague is a rare combination of skills. He’s not just big. He’s a real hockey player.

The Video

You can enjoy both Hague’s powerplay passing and his heavy shot in this clip. If you’re like me, a third thing you’ll enjoy is the resigned lack of emotion from the commentator on the first goal.

Next up, let’s watch Hague do terrible things to the Guelph Storm. While the first goal is the classic Hague cannon, you’ll also see Hague join a rush, and cut in towards the net for a couple of short-range goals that a Coke machine would never produce.

Ain’t he grand?

The Caveats

If you want to argue against picking Hague, you might debate his skating again, saying it’s only “good for a big man” and that you want mobility more than anything else; and certainly players in Erik Brannstrom’s style are very cool. But the package of assets Hague brings is pretty great, and not common. According to Steelheads coach James Richmond, one scout was bothered because he couldn’t find any holes in Hague’s game.

As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that bothers me about Hague is his temper. He takes too many penalties, which is not unheard of for a big defensive player, but is still counterproductive. Further to that, he was suspended for a couple of games following this dumb extra punch after a fight in March. Rough play from junior hockey players is nothing new, but of all the things I like in Hague’s game, the dumber kind of aggression is one thing I’d like him to take out.

The Bottom Line

Nic Hague is a big player who is also a complete player. He’s a quality defenceman on both sides of the puck, and if he’s available at 17th overall, I think he would be well worth the Leafs’ selection.

As a parting note: Sportsnet has written a bit about Hague this season, including his experiences interviewing with teams. The team he really wants to interview with his is childhood one—the Leafs.

“It’d be kind of a dream come true,” Hague says.