Canucks’ Quinn Hughes rising to meet increased expectations

Connor McDavid scored the go-ahead goal and the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Vancouver Canucks.

BANFF, Alta. – Near the end of the first game of his rookie season, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes was trapped slightly by a turnover and failed to prevent the best player in the world from scoring the winning goal for the Edmonton Oilers.

Too bad. The 19-year-old might have been overmatched against Connor McDavid, right? Shouldn’t have been in that position.

Except, this is what happened before Hughes’ first shift, when he and defence partner Chris Tanev were started by coach Travis Green and immediately countered by McDavid’s line.

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“(Hughes) was like: ‘Are we going to stay out here?’” Tanev explained Friday of their short conversation before the opening faceoff. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ And Quinn was like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ He’s a confident kid. He’s a helluva player who’s only going to get better.”

Hughes actually made the right play on McDavid’s decisive goal, using his speed to get close enough to momentarily knock the puck off the Oiler captain’s stick on a partial breakaway. But McDavid found the puck just in time to roof it over goalie Jacob Markstrom in Edmonton’s 3-2 win.

“It happened two days ago, so I’m over that,” Hughes said Friday as the Canucks ended a brief retreat to the Rockies with a practice in Banff. “I was pretty much over that right after the game. It was a lucky play but it was a really good player who made that play and capitalized on the chance.”

Hughes will see more really good players, including Johnny Gaudreau, when the Canucks visit the Calgary Flames on Saturday night.

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It will be the seventh game of Hughes’ National Hockey League career.

“When he came in at the end of the year last year and played straight out of college, I think it was almost easier because you’re super excited and you jump in and go play, and the team didn’t really have any expectations,” Tanev said. “Now, first game of the year, we have more expectations and he still played well. It’s going to continue to get better. You guys will see, every couple of games he’s going to do stuff that surprises everyone.”

When extra forward Adam Gaudette practised Friday at centre on Green’s third line, bumping Brandon Sutter to the wing and Loui Eriksson apparently out of the lineup, it fanned debate in Vancouver about how much Gaudette may or may not play, where and with whom.

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There is no such uncertainty about Hughes, who turns 20 on Oct. 14. The seventh pick of the 2018 draft is going to play a ton (mostly with Tanev), be important to the power play and drive the Canucks’ attack.

Including his sneak preview last spring, Hughes has four assists in six NHL games.

On Wednesday, the teenager actually led the Canucks with 19:29 of even-strength ice time, and his overall TOI of 23:07 was behind only No. 1 defenceman Alex Edler’s 25:40, which included 7:19 of special-teams play. The Canucks generated 65.5 per cent of even-strength shot attempts when Hughes was on the ice.

No matter how much Green tries to suppress projections for Hughes, the five-foot-10 defenceman from the University of Michigan is in danger of elevating them each time he plays.

“When I said taper expectations, I didn’t say taper ice time,” Green said Friday. “Those are two different things. My job is to not sit here and stand and talk to you guys about how many points he needs to get, how many minutes he needs to play. He just has to play and we’ll figure out his minutes as we go. He’ll help us do that.”

So will Tanev.

The skill sets of Tanev and Hughes seem perfectly compatible — a veteran shutdown defenceman respected for his reliability and consistency, paired with a young skating dynamo who loves to rush the puck and create offence. But here’s the thing: Tanev is probably better with the puck than given credit for, while Hughes is more conscientious defensively than people realize.

“I thought we played really well,” Tanev said of the opener. “He’s so mobile and he moves the puck so well, he sort of keeps me on my toes and makes me get up the ice. Playing with Quinn is really fun. It’s a different style of game than I’m used to playing.

“You’re sprinting to open ice, moving to different spots and in so many different places because he’s so elusive that he tends to beat the first forechecker. So you get yourself in a position where you can help him make a quick play. You get up the ice really quick.”

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In 50 years, the Canucks have never had a defence prospect like Hughes.

“He skates well, but I think it’s the elusiveness he has that’s really impressive,” Tanev said. “There’s lots of guys who skate really well, but he is really shifty and knows how to make guys miss. He skates from pressure really well.”

On one memorable shift at the end of the first period on Wednesday, Hughes and Tanev helped control the puck for more than a minute before Elias Pettersson was stopped at the back post by Oiler goalie Mike Smith.

“He’s smart and he’s creative in the o-zone,” Hughes said of Tanev. “He’s not stuck on his point there. He dives through and comes behind. At the end of the first period, that shift we had, he was diving everywhere, creating space for me and Petey and making plays. For me, it’s pretty easy to play with him.

“I didn’t realize how good a skater he was.”

Nobody should ever say that about Hughes.

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