VANCOUVER – It was neither the contract nor the competition – none of one, lots of the other – that delayed elite prospect Quinn Hughes’ appearance at the Vancouver Canucks’ summer development camp. It was the fish.
The seventh-overall pick from last month’s NHL Draft figures it was food poisoning that forced him to miss the first on-ice sessions Monday at Rogers Arena.
Hughes got sick after ordering seafood at a chain restaurant – the kind of place college students go to eat. Professional hockey players, especially NHL players, don’t eat there. Soon, Hughes may not need to.
He looked excellent at practice on Tuesday and is the main attraction for Thursday’s prospects game. It is sold out, which tells you the level of excitement that exists around the Canucks and an incoming wave of talented prospects who could lead the team back from its lowest point in two decades.
But Hughes’ first mass press scrum after Tuesday’s sessions was dominated not by the fleet defenceman’s performance but his preference. Is he going to turn pro or return for his second season at the University of Michigan? That is the question.
"I’ve got a lot of smart people around me," Hughes told reporters. "The mindset they’ve kind of been telling me is ‘just put your head down, get to work.’ I’ve seen lots of high picks fold. For me, I just want to continue to get better.
"There’s pro and cons to every situation, (but) I don’t think there’s a con playing in the NHL. Whatever happens, I’m going to look at the positive side."
Canucks general manager Jim Benning spoke Tuesday with Hughes’ agent, Pat Brisson, and they’ve scheduled another teleconference on Friday. They’ll try to agree on what’s best for Hughes, a five-foot-10 defenceman who flies around the ice and generated 29 points in 37 games as a freshman at Michigan this past season before making Team USA’s senior world championship team.
Naturally, both the Canucks and Hughes want him to play in the NHL as soon as he is able. But if he’s not ready for the NHL as an 18-year-old, Hughes might rather spend another season at college rather than play in the American Hockey League for the Canucks’ farm team in Utica, N.Y.
The problem is the Canucks won’t truly know if he’s ready for the NHL until training camp and pre-season next fall, and Hughes needs to make a decision on turning pro soon.
"At the end of the day, we’ve got to figure out what’s best for his development long term because he’s going to be a special player for us," Benning said. "We don’t want to put him in a situation that he’s not ready for.
"I think they’re considering everything right now. If we think he’s ready to play in the NHL and can feel comfortable, then we’ll try to get him signed. And if we think he’s not quite ready for the NHL and we’re just going to sign him and send him to the AHL, then that’s where we’ll talk about whether he’s better off playing another year at the University of Michigan. That’s what we’re working through."
Hughes didn’t say Tuesday that he wouldn’t go to the AHL and, to his side’s credit, hasn’t demanded an NHL spot from the Canucks as a condition for signing a professional contract.
Benning, of course, could make things easy and tell Hughes the Canucks believe he’s ready for the NHL. But to the exasperation of fans whose default position is "just play the kids," that’s not Benning’s nor most teams’ idea about how player development works.
That’s why Canucks winger Jake Virtanen spent his second pro season in the AHL after playing in the NHL as a rookie, and why vital prospects Olli Juolevi and Elias Pettersson spent last season in Europe, and why goalie of the future Thatcher Demko has already done two years in Utica and my start a third season there next fall.
Hughes has to be ready.
"I never doubt Quinn Hughes as a hockey player, so if he decides to turn pro, I know he’ll do a great job," Jeff Tambellini, Hughes’ assistant coach at Michigan last season, told Sportsnet. "But for me, looking at it only from a development standpoint, I don’t think it has ever hurt a player to play another year (at college) just to make sure he’s prepared physically and mentally because nothing compares to the National Hockey League."
Tambellini, who is now coach and general manager of the Junior-A Trail Smoke Eaters, played for Hughes’ dad, Jim, in the AHL after Tambellini was the Los Angeles Kings’ first-round draft pick in 2003.
"I know Quinn’s a smart hockey player and comes from a great hockey family," Tambellini said. "I know he will be able to adapt to anything. But with where the Canucks are at right now, there’s really no rush. They’ve got a great crop of prospects coming in and he’s going to be a big part of that."
Hughes said he’ll respect whatever the Canucks tell him.
"I’m really going to listen to what they want to do because obviously they know what they’re doing and they have a plan here," he said. "I need to respect that for sure. In saying that, I wouldn’t mind going back to Michigan if they didn’t know where I fit in.
"I’m very confident in my abilities. Obviously, I want to believe I can play in the NHL. But I know it’s a really hard league. It’s obviously the best league in the world, and not a lot of 18-year-olds, especially defencemen, come in and play. If it’s not an option, I definitely understand. Playing in college again wouldn’t be the worst thing."
Unless you take a vote in Vancouver.