For a while now the expectation has been that Quinn Hughes would join the Vancouver Canucks after his season with the NCAA’s Michigan Wolverines concluded. He suggested as much in December during an appearance on the FAN 650’s Starting Lineup and the Canucks even considered asking Hughes to leave school following the WJC, which was hosted in Vancouver.
Back in January and even February, there was a hope that when Hughes arrived the Canucks would still be in the thick of a playoff race. But a 5-11-3 stretch now has them nine back of the wild card and just as close to the bottom of the conference as they are to a playoff spot.
A silver lining for the fan base, though, is that they’ll now likely get to watch their top prospect — an exciting one at that — take his first NHL steps. Michigan’s season ended Saturday night and it’s expected Hughes will sign a contract with Vancouver, possibly this week.
“His vision with the puck, he’s a play ahead,” Wolverines head coach Mel Pearson said about what aspect of Hughes’ game he’s most excited about translating to the NHL. “He knows where he’s going with the puck. He’s not one of those guys who needs to look right at a guy to make a pass.
“His skating. Everybody can see his skating, creativity with the puck,” Pearson continued. “Hockey sense, vision, poise and patience. Some players have that and some don’t.”
The 19-year-old is coming off a monster of a season, his second with the Wolverines, in which he recorded 33 points in 30 regular season games. That 1.10 points per game average was the second-highest mark of any under-20 NCAA defenceman in the 21st century, trailing only Adam Fox’s 1.14 (40 points in 35 games) in 2016-17. Fox was a freshman for a loaded Harvard Crimson that made it to the Frozen Four that season, while Hughes led the 13-14-7 Wolverines who were swept in the first round of the Big 10 playoffs.
With Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser in tow, Hughes is another dynamic talent who will be a huge factor when Vancouver finally takes that next step as a playoff team. But for now, expectations need to be tempered as to what his initial impact will be. Even Rasmus Dahlin, the only defenceman taken before Hughes in his draft, had just one goal and four points in his first month in the NHL. Hughes’ payoff is all about the long-term contribution.
“He’s not going to be the saviour,” Pearson cautioned. “He’s a very good player who’s going to do great things for Vancouver over time, but I’d tell people to have some patience.
“Like Dylan Larkin in Detroit, another Michigan player. Dylan’s a hell of a player, but he’s not going to get them to the playoffs this year. Somewhere down the line they’ll get there and he’ll be a big part of that and the same will be true about Quinn.”
The area of his game that will need the most tightening is on defence, which isn’t uncommon for a teenaged blueliner stepping into the NHL. The biggest challenge for Hughes will be figuring out what he can’t get away with in the NHL that he could nightly in the NCAA, while still being fearless with his natural abilities.
This is where Hughes’ exposure to professional talent representing USA at the 2018 World Championship will come in handy. Pearson noted how impressed Team USA coach Jeff Blashill was by Hughes’ ability to adapt to pro competition in 10 games last summer, over which he accumulated two assists.
The Wolverines coach also calls Hughes a “perfectionist” and that playing at the highest level will push Hughes to thrive and focus on improving at the things that will one day make him a great NHL blueliner. He rises to the level of competition he’s against.
He won’t overpower you physically, but he can keep up with anyone, which will make it tough to beat him out of a play. That’s the more important thing teams look for in a blueliner nowadays as the NHL game has changed in a way that favours the kind of 5-foot-10, 170-pound puck-mover Hughes is.
Pearson noted that, generally, when he talks to NHL teams about various defencemen, the kind of answers they seek aren’t the same that were being sought out years ago.
“When I talk to GMs or scouts they ask ‘how are his first three steps’ or ‘how is his speed?’ Pearson said. “Very rarely do they ask about physicality. They might ask you about compete, but speed is so important.”
Hughes has that in spades. The Canucks were appointment viewing at the start of the season just to see what Pettersson would do, and now the same could be true with Hughes in the lineup. He’s tremendous at transitioning the play, creating and controlling up-ice rushes that should help pick up Vancouver’s tempo when he’s on the ice.
It’ll just take a little time for Hughes to round into his full potential. Not only does he personally have to evolve against top competition, he’ll face that challenge on a Canucks team that is likely to lose more often than not down the stretch. One of the marks of a great player, though, is how he responds to personal mistakes or rough team stretches and Pearson believes Hughes is more ready than most to deal with this reality in a hockey-mad market.
“He bounces back from things,” Pearson said. “Maybe it’s because of how young he is, but he does not dwell on the negativity of a tough outing. He’s such a positive person. That’s one of his strengths. You have to have thick skin and a short memory.”
The bottom line is Hughes wants what Vancouver has to offer and the Canucks need exactly the dimension Hughes can add. The picture may not always be rosy with immediate elite production when Hughes arrives, but at the foundation, he is another dynamic talent setting the table for better days ahead.
“He’s really excited about coming to Vancouver,” Pearson said. “We’ve talked about that before. Some kids get drafted by a team and go ‘oh shoot’ but he’s excited. He got a real good feel for (the city) at the WJC. He wants to play for a hockey market.”