Quinn Hughes is special.
Not special in a “you’re-special-I’m-special-everyone’s-special” kind of way. He is literally unique in Vancouver Canucks history. At least we think so.
The Canucks are celebrating their 50th year in the National Hockey League and Hughes, a 20-year rookie, is the first young defenceman the franchise has possessed who has the speed, agility, instincts and sheer talent to be a game-changer on the blue line. He is also five-foot-10.
In five decades, the franchise has had a bunch of excellent defencemen, but none with the speed and dynamic skill set that Hughes is still developing. He is an early Calder Trophy candidate, perhaps the biggest challenger to Colorado Avalanche rookie defenceman Cale Makar.
The dynamic duo face each other Saturday when the Avalanche visit Rogers Arena.
As the Canucks reached the one-quarter mark of their season with Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars, Hughes had 12 points in 19 games and is on pace, if he stays healthy, to produce 51 points in his first NHL season.
The Canucks haven’t had a 50-point defenceman since Christian Ehrhoff reached that threshold nine years ago. Since 2012, no Vancouver defenceman has generated more than 34 points in a season.
So Quinn Hughes is special. But don’t just take our word for it. Listen to some of the Canucks’ top defencemen from the last five decades.
“He really controls the game when he’s moving,” Ed Jovanoski (1999-2006 Canucks) says. “That’s always a sign of a special player, when you can control the game with your legs and hockey IQ. It’s almost, as Hughes is going, the team’s going.”
Jovanovski says he often stays up late at home in Florida to watch the Canucks play.
Jovanovski: “Every time I’m watching Vancouver, I hear Shorty (play-by-play announcer John Shorthouse) saying ‘Hughes, Hughes, Hughes.’ He has the puck a lot. He’s a part of the way the NHL is played today. Look at Cale Makar in Colorado — I turn their games on just to watch that kid. He’s kind of in the same boat as Hughes. These young guys stand out.”
“Skating separates him from so many other D-men,” Kevin Bieksa (2005-15 Canucks) says from California. “He’s so young and new to the league and he’s not the biggest guy — I’m sure he’ll fill out as (Canucks conditioning coach) Roger Takahashi gets his hands on him — but right away he’s not just surviving, but being an impact guy because of his speed and skating abilities. He’s not tall, but he’s got a long stride, which not a lot of defencemen have. A lot of defencemen have short, choppy strides. But he’s got a long stride and he’s got really good edgework. He’s good on his edges, he opens up, he does mohawk (turns) — kind of the new-age skating. You can tell he’s worked with high-quality skating coaches.”
“When I played, there was no one with that skill set,” Doug Lidster (1983-93 Canucks) says from Michigan. “Nobody skated like he does, all over the ice. Certainly, no one I played with in Vancouver had his skill set and I’m pretty sure the organization has never had someone like that. I remember seeing him at Michigan (in university), and he was head and shoulders better than everyone else. It was easy to see why he went seventh overall.”
The day Hughes fell into the Canucks’ laps with the seventh pick of the 2018 entry draft was general manager Jim Benning’s happiest in five years in Vancouver.
“We were looking for a defenceman like that,” Benning (1986-1990 Canucks) says. “Every team, to get to that next level, needs a defenceman that can control things from the back end. We had Petey (Elias Pettersson) in the fold and Brock Boeser and Bo (Horvat) and Thatcher Demko and some other pieces. But we needed a defenceman that could control the tempo and play from the back end and we thought that was something Quinn could do. So when he was there when we picked, I was super excited.”
“He’s perfect for this day and age,” Dave Babych (1991-98 Canucks) says. “As the games get harder, teams will try to test him physically. Phil Housley was a great skater, a puck-carrying defenceman (for the old Winnipeg Jets). But when we played them in the playoffs, Sergio Momesso and Jim Sandlak just hit him shift after shift. Eventually, it was almost like Housley didn’t want the puck anymore. Body contact is still there once in a while, but when the Hudson Bay Rules come out in the playoffs, it’s a different game. We haven’t seen that yet.”
(Editor’s note. Housley’s disappearance in the playoffs against the Canucks spawned one of the all-time great headlines in the Winnipeg Sun: ‘1-800-FIND PHIL’).
Bieksa: “There are still big guys in the game, but those guys don’t play like the big guys did 10 years ago. I don’t think the game is as physical as it used to be, and fourth lines have a different dynamic now, younger and more skill. There’s not as much dump and chase… compared to 10 or 15 years ago when you knew every time the fourth line was on the ice, they were going to dump it in your corner and a big, burly winger with limited skill was going to try to put you through the boards. (Hughes) will be able to last.”
“I’m very, very impressed with his skating and confidence and creativity,” Dennis Kearns (1972-82 Canucks) says. “And I like the way the coach has confidence in him and puts him out on the ice and just lets him play, lets him create. In terms of mobility, Paul Reinhart was a beautiful skater, an exceptional talent. But he was bigger and thicker than Quinn. But I think (Hughes’) skill set is different than anyone we’ve seen in Vancouver.”
Reinhart had back-to-back 57-point seasons on the Vancouver blue line at the end of his NHL career. He was the most talented offensive defenceman in franchise history, but spent his best years in the 1980s with the Calgary Flames.
Kearns still holds the record among Canuck defencemen for his 55 assists in 1976-77. Lidster has the record for most points by a defenceman, 63, set in 1986-87.
Lidster: “Is Hughes going to break my record?”
He left the Canucks for the New York Rangers, and in 1994 helped beat Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Final. Lidster’s Ranger teammates included Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov, two of the most mobile defencemen of all time.
Lidster: “Great players have a certain aura about them where you can’t take your eyes off them. When I have seen Quinn play, he has shown that quality, just like Leetch and Zubov.”
Jovanovski: “He reminds me a little of Scotty Niedermayer. Quinn is as smooth on his skates as Scotty. Nieds could always use his skating to skate the puck out of trouble, which is very rare.”
Babych: “(Former Canuck teammate) Bret Hedican could be one of the best skaters ever in this league. But Heddy wasn’t east-west like Hughes. It’s just a different style of skating now.”
“That’s a helluva compliment from Babych,” Hedican (1993-1999 Canucks), now a broadcaster with the San Jose Sharks, says. “I’ve only watched Hughes a couple of times, but from what I’ve seen, he’s phenomenal. He looks like an amazing skater with great vision and instincts on the ice.”
Jovanovski: “I think his talent is through the roof.”
Bieksa: “I don’t know if he’s a complete defenceman yet. Is he a guy you can put out at the end of the game to defend a lead? Or does he have the potential to be that? But he’s got a lot of offensive potential because of his skating. There’s a lot of guys who have come into the NHL with a tonne of offensive potential, but it’s tough to get the job done. To put up 40 points or 45 points as an NHL defenceman is not an easy task. So (Hughes) has got to go out and prove it. He’s got the great skating stride, got the great instincts, but he’s got to go out and put numbers on the board and stay healthy.”
Benning: “The things he’s good at, you can’t teach. He’s going to have to gain experience and continue to get physically stronger. But he changes the dynamic of our team. He can get back there and get the puck and transition it up ice fast to our forwards, and then is so good at jumping up in the play and joining the rush. That’s a dynamic the team hasn’t had for a lot of years.”
Quinn Hughes: “I thought I would come in and make a difference, and I think I’ve done that. I’ve played pretty good minutes, been pretty good defensively. I think I’ll just keep going, keep getting better.
“I’m happy with my first 19 games, but I’m not satisfied.”