VANCOUVER – After their worst week of the season, the Vancouver Canucks have signed their best prospect outside the National Hockey League.
Hopefully, Quinn Hughes knows what he’s in for.
Drafted seventh-overall last June, the speedy University of Michigan defenceman signed his entry-level contract on Sunday, the day after his college season ended. The Canucks announced Hughes will travel to Vancouver on Tuesday.
“We’ve known he was coming from Day 1,” Canuck coach Travis Green said Sunday before the contract announcement. “Or we hoped. When you draft a player that high, there’s no secret that he doesn’t just all of a sudden wake-up today and there’s an option he might be there (in the NHL). I’ve known for a while.
“He’s obviously a high priority for our group going forward and you hope the transition is clean and quick. He’s an exciting part of our future.”
The Canucks, hammered 6-2 on home ice Saturday night by the Vegas Golden Knights, play Wednesday at home against the New York Rangers.
Vancouver has 13 games remaining and Hughes, 19, will play in up to 10 of them. If he plays 11, the Canucks will have to protect him in the 2021 Seattle expansion draft, which would mean likely losing another young defenceman.
The Canucks’ 4-10-3 nosedive out of the Western Conference playoff race the last five weeks means there is little at stake in the standings while playing – or sitting out – Hughes, who had 33 points in 32 games for Michigan this season.
Raised in Toronto, where his father, Jim, worked for the Maple Leafs, the American blueliner is considered a future Canuck cornerstone, a prospect nearly as gifted as Calder Trophy favourite Elias Pettersson.
The Canucks are 1-4 in their last five games and played two of their worst games this season, both against the Golden Knights, in a span of seven days.
Veteran right-side defenceman Chris Tanev, who missed the last 11 games with a sprained ankle, fully practised Sunday and is expected to play on Wednesday. Tanev and Hughes, who plays the left side, could enter the lineup as a pairing.
Hughes has dazzling mobility and could soon quarterback the Canucks’ dormant power play, which has been a key factor in the team’s collapse.
“I haven’t seen him play, but everyone says he’s a great player, a great skater,” Tanev said. “When he comes and plays, I’m sure he’s going to help us.
“I think everyone in here is willing to help everyone, especially a young D-man. You want to get to know a new guy if he’s going to be here for the foreseeable future.”
Indicative of the Canucks’ evolutionary stage, this is the third consecutive spring they’re incorporating in the NHL a top prospect straight out of college hockey.
Two years ago, University of North Dakota star Brock Boeser logged nine games with the Canucks at the end of the NHL season. His four goals were a launch point for his rookie season in 2017-18, when the winger had 29 goals and 55 points in 62 games and finished second to New York Islander Mathew Barzal in Calder Trophy balloting.
Last spring, centre Adam Gaudette, the leading scorer in college hockey and its Hobey Baker Award winner, got into five games with the Canucks after his season at Northeastern ended. After a couple of minor-league stints this season with the Utica Comets, Gaudette has become a Canuck regular and has 12 points in 43 games as an NHL rookie.
Pettersson, the centre drafted fifth overall by the Canucks the year before Hughes was selected, leads the Canucks with 26 goals and 57 points in 57 games and is the heavy favourite to be the first NHL rookie-of-the-year in Vancouver since Pavel Bure in 1992.
Concerns about whether the 175-pound Pettersson would be strong enough to jump to the NHL from Sweden is why the Canucks were uncomfortable about also bringing the 170-pound Hughes into their lineup last fall. Strength, however, hasn’t been an issue for Pettersson and the Canucks probably could have used Hughes, too.
Green acknowledged Sunday it’s more difficult for a defenceman than a forward to transition straight to the NHL from college hockey.
“Yeah it is, but I plan on getting him in if he’s here,” Green said. “I want to play him as much as I can.”
March 10, 2019