VANCOUVER – When Quinn Hughes returned to the bench Monday after probably his worst mistake of a rookie season in which he has made remarkably few, neither his hockey coach nor hockey dad said anything to him. They didn’t have to. Kids know.
“He was fine,” veteran Vancouver Canucks defenceman Chris Tanev explained Tuesday morning. “You’re going to make mistakes. Things happen. He’s a terrific player. But once in a while, something’s going to happen that doesn’t go the way you want it to go. You play 82 games, 20 minutes every game. Things can’t go your way all the time. He did a great job of just putting it behind him and going out to play.”
Without kids of his own, the 30-year-old Tanev is getting called “Dad” by several of the Canucks’ younger players, including Hughes, who turned 20 in October.
Tanev has been playing with and mentoring Hughes since the season began. He has also been cooking for Hughes, hanging out with him and watching over the rookie who spent the NHL all-star break at the actual all-star game, where he scored a goal that made even Wayne Gretzky say “wow.”
Asked upon his return to Vancouver on Sunday if that experience changed how Hughes felt about himself, he said: “I could have had a bad game or not even gone and I would still think I was one of the best players. I’ve got a lot of confidence, but I feel like I’m humble, too, and know where I stand. But throughout the year, playing match-up roles and continuing to put up offence, I feel like I’m there.”
And then three minutes into Monday’s game against the St. Louis Blues, Hughes threw up on himself, flubbing a backhand pass under pressure and turning over the puck to David Perron, who set up Zach Sanford for the opening goal.
Canucks coach Travis Green, who kept on playing Hughes with Tanev in tough matchups against Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn, said after Vancouver’s impressive 3-1 win that the fierce game was a “learning curve” for the rookie defenceman.
“He was a little too cute early,” Green said. “This guy, he’s a good hockey player and he’s got to learn in these types of games what you can do and what you can’t do.”
With 34 points in 49 games and an average ice time of 21:35 and growing, Hughes is a likely Calder Trophy finalist. He is a rare player, almost unique, in his ability and willingness at five-foot-10 to hold the puck and make plays from his own zone while under pressure from larger, stronger NHL forwards.
Seriously, watch how often Hughes wins a race to a puck and, facing his oncoming opponent, won’t just chip it to safety, but instead pivots with the puck under pressure, skates to create passing angles and then makes a play to a teammate.
This combination of poise and skill is why the Canucks typically drive possession when Hughes is on the ice. When he has the puck, the other team can’t score.
Nobody should want Quinn Hughes to change a game this good.
But as time and space shrink in proportion to increasing speed and physicality during the Canucks’ playoff drive, Hughes will have to continue adapting to the NHL after spending the last two seasons at the University of Michigan.
“This is the way I’ve always played,” Hughes said Tuesday before the Canucks travelled to San Jose to open a five-game road trip against the Sharks on Wednesday. “Nobody says anything about it when it works. It was just a freak play for me. It’s a hard league and there are good players, but there is a point when I need to know when to (try making a play) and when not to. I’ll just keep figuring that out.”
Having turned with the puck in front of Perron, Hughes was trying a D-to-D pass to Tanev when he gave it away near the Canucks’ net.
“I double-hit it,” Hughes said. “That’s just a play that happens one out of a million for me. That was just a regular backhand (pass) and I double-hit it. If I’d gone up the wall, I probably would have got smacked. And I couldn’t really see who was up the wall, so I just turned back and the guy was right on me. I just got unlucky there.”
Hughes didn’t miss a shift and finished with 20:26 of ice time.
“He’s always trying to make a play,” Tanev said. “He never wants to put guys in a tough situation (with a pass). He gets the puck and he’s thinking: OK, I’m going to beat this guy or should I pass it through that guy? That’s so the guy on the receiving end has half-a-second more to make a play when he gets the puck. That’s one of the things that makes him so special.
“I think the hardest thing for him is it’s an 82-game schedule. That’s the biggest thing to adjust to, just getting rest and trying to eat well and manage your energy off the ice so you can perform on the ice.”
Tanev frequently has Hughes and other young teammates over to his Yaletown home for dinner. He’s a good dad.
“They bring a lot of energy,” Tanev said. “Good day or bad day, they’re always smiling, cracking jokes with each other. Quinn is an incredible player and an awesome guy off the ice. We like to hang out. We both want to be in those big moments against the other team’s top guys. He’s only going to get better. Each game he is going to learn something and then take it into the next game.”