VANCOUVER – Armchair CSI investigators can strike one theory about what toppled Trevor Linden. Super-prospect Quinn Hughes has decided to return to the University of Michigan rather than turn pro next fall for the Vancouver Canucks.
When Linden stunningly split from the Canucks Wednesday evening after four years as the National Hockey League team’s president of hockey operations, a popular theory evolved that ownership demanded that Hughes and fellow prospect Elias Pettersson be guaranteed roster spots in order to sell tickets and market the team.
But general manager Jim Benning, who survived whatever ideologically clash precipitated Linden’s exit while the Canucks are well into a rebuild, reiterated on Thursday that no prospect would be rushed to the NHL before he is ready. And after Benning spoke again Friday with Hughes’ advisor, Pat Brisson, the dynamic defenceman drafted seventh-overall in June announced Saturday that he will return to Michigan for his sophomore season.
Linden or Benning could have made Hughes’ decision easy by promising him a spot on the NHL roster, but were not prepared to do that.
“It’s really hard to do that,” Benning told Sportsnet on Saturday. “Quinn’s a great player, but he’s 5-10 and 170 pounds. We went back and forth on it. The thing we didn’t want happening is we sign him, he makes the team, and then things go south because he’s an 18-year-old rookie. Then what? This was a mutual agreement. We talked to Quinn last night and he understands and is on board with it. He’s going to work hard at Michigan.
“(Columbus defenceman) Zach Werenski played two years of college hockey at Michigan, (Boston Bruin) Charlie McAvoy played two years at Boston. And those guys are 200-pound guys.”
Hughes turns 19 in October, and his late birthday allowed him to play a full season of NCAA hockey before Benning selected him at last month’s draft in Dallas.
With skating and puck-carrying dynamics the Canucks have lacked in a defenceman for 30 years, Hughes had 29 points in 37 games as a Michigan freshman and made both Team USA’s world junior and world championship teams.
But he is just 5-10 and 170 pounds and Benning, like Linden, was concerned that Hughes may not be strong enough yet for the NHL. The key issue in Hughes’ decision about next season seemed to be what would happen if he turned pro but needed time to develop below the NHL.
Understandably, he would rather play among friends and peers at home in Michigan than for the Canucks’ American Hockey League farm team in Utica, N.Y.
“My heart’s obviously still at Michigan,” Hughes told MGoBlue.com. “I was heartbroken when we lost to Notre Dame in the Frozen Four last year. I’ve never really been on a team that cares so much about each other, and I think that’s a big reason why I’m coming back, because I love my teammates.
“It was unfinished business, of course. I want to win. When I look back at my season last year, I had a great year. But I didn’t win a national championship. So, that’s my goal next year, and anything less than that would be disappointing.”
Fans in Vancouver should be able to see Hughes play in the world junior championship at Christmastime, and there is still an excellent chance, depending on when Michigan’s season ends, that the defenceman who grew up in Toronto could still make his NHL debut next spring.
Fortunately for the Canucks, Pettersson, the fifth-overall pick from 2017, remains a likely bet to earn a spot in Vancouver in October after his record-smashing pro season in the Swedish Hockey League in which the 19-year-old had 56 points in 44 games for Vaxjo and was named the league’s most valuable player.
Like Hughes, Pettersson is also slight, just 165 pounds on a six-foot-two frame. But his extra year of development, and ability to thrive against professionals in a respected league in Sweden, give him a head start on trying to make the Canucks.
Asked if Canuck managing owner Francesco Aquilini was involved in the Hughes’ decision, Benning said: “Other teams I’ve worked for, there’s always interaction with ownership on big decisions. Francesco asked me what I thought was the best thing for Quinn’s development. I told him, and that was it.”
Minor-league goalie Thatcher Demko, widely regarded as one of the best netminding prospects outside the NHL, also has a chance to make the Canucks next fall after two full seasons in the AHL. And other elite prospects, like forwards Kole Lind and Jonathan Dahlen and defenceman Olli Juolevi, will push for the NHL roster but are likely to develop in Utica next season and be ready for the Canucks soon.