EDMONTON – He has never played an NHL playoff game, so what Quinn Hughes experiences Sunday night against the Minnesota Wild is likely to be faster, tougher and harder than anything he has seen.
But then Hughes, the 20-year-old rookie sensation, is also going to be faster, stronger and better than the Calder Trophy finalist the Wild saw when they visited Vancouver and beat the Canucks 4-3 in a shootout on Feb. 19 – three weeks before the NHL shut down for the coronavirus.
If the Canucks defenceman wins the Calder after this extraordinary Stanley Cup tournament ends, Hughes may feel a little bit like a fraud – because he doesn’t feel like a rookie anymore.
“I kind of feel like I’m headed into my sophomore year now,” Hughes told Sportsnet in an exclusive interview before the Canucks travelled here for the franchise’s first playoff games since 2015. “I’m stronger, I’m better, I expect more from myself. But at the same time, I’m walking into playoff hockey, so I’m modest in the sense that I’m not sure what will happen. I feel confident that I can be a big part of the series.”
The Canucks and Wild play a five-game qualifying series to advance to the final 16, and Hughes has been a huge part of everything his team has done this season.
The playoffs are sometimes called the “second season,” but for developing stars like Hughes that label has a literal feel this summer.
The four-month NHL shutdown was much more than a chance to rest and heal for Hughes. It was a chance to get better.
There is a massive learning curve on and off the ice for young players in the league. Off-season conditioning and development are almost as important as in-season performance. It took former Canucks stars Daniel and Henrik Sedin four or five years to figure out how to train properly and find the right balance between strength and quickness.
Brock Boeser, Hughes’ 23-year-old teammate, is at the end of his third NHL season and only now appears to have discovered the right conditioning balance. Like the Sedins, Boeser got too heavy in his initial rush to get stronger for the NHL. But Boeser spent the COVID-19 shutdown working on cardio at home in Minnesota and has looked fitter and faster since returning to the Canucks. He is also fully healthy for the first time in a while.
Boeser and Hughes were Vancouver’s best players at training camp. Sophomore centre Elias Pettersson, 21, also looks stronger and faster.
“Petey is definitely stronger because Petey’s body is still growing,” Hughes said. “I think Brock is already a little more filled out, but Brock really skated hard (during the shutdown) and tried to work on some things. I talked to him and he feels really confident. The big thing with Petey was could he get a little bit stronger and I could I get a little bit stronger? Because we have room for growth there.”
Given their ages and the upward arc of their careers, there is an organic element to the improvement in the Canucks’ young stars since we last saw them in March. But it was not accidental.
“I didn’t know how long we were going to be off (with the shutdown) so I just took a couple of weeks off at the start,” Hughes explained. “I’d been playing hurt a little bit towards the end and so I needed a break just for that. But then coach (Travis) Green kind of got on me to start working out and trying to use this to my advantage to get stronger and better. He said this would be good for the team and it would help me, too, so he was on me a lot, calling me pretty much every week to discuss how things were going. That was huge as a motivator for me. That really helped me.”
Asked at camp if he pushed his young stars to treat the shutdown like an off-season developmentally, Green said: “I would say we talked openly about it and candidly, and expectations were for them to become stronger and better players when they come back.
“I thought at the beginning of this, if. . . the younger players on our team could come back and take a step it would give us a huge advantage for the same season we just left. That’s never happened before.”
There will be much about these playoffs that have never happened before. But inexperience, especially without fans to influence momentum, shouldn’t be the handicap it is typically considered to be. And if the league’s most talented young players are even better for the added development time, then teams like the Canucks that lean heavily on entry-level stars must be better, too.
“That’s not crazy,” veteran Jay Beagle said of the theory. “I think our whole team has seen that in these guys. It’s very noticeable with Hughes. He can just dominate the play and looks more comfortable out there, more confident, like a second-year pro. We’ve definitely seen it and talked about it as a group. The team is looking dangerous right now.”
Hughes, who is five-foot-10 and played the regular season at about 172 pounds, figures he added about five pounds of muscle over the last four months. He said he has progressed far beyond the player he was in September when he reported to the Canucks as 19-year-old prospect six months removed from the University of Michigan.
“Physically, it’s a huge difference,” he said. “But mentally, it’s even bigger. There is a lot I learned this year from the coaching staff and from the players. I think I’m smarter, I’m better, I’m more skilled, I’m stronger. I don’t think there will be as much of (an improvement) as there was from September to now ever again. But I’ll keep getting better.
“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, I’m ready for the playoffs.’ Who really knows? There are some big, strong guys over there (on the Wild) and I’ve got to be smart where I put my body and how long I hold on to pucks. Guys like the Sedins learned over the years how to look after their body. All it takes is one bad hit and it could be over. So it’s important for me to put myself in good spots.
“Every game takes its own shape and form, and some games I might be able to do a little more than others just based on how tight it is and what the other team is giving me. But I feel confident. We all feel confident in what we can do.”