The dynamic 19-year-old defenceman from the University of Michigan turned pro on Sunday, arrives in Vancouver on Tuesday and could be in the Canucks’ lineup Friday when they play the New Jersey Devils. But after blocking a shot on his ankle during college playoffs last weekend, Hughes first must get healthy, which seems appropriate because nearly everyone on the Canucks has been injured this season.
It was another mass migration to the medical room that torpedoed the team’s unexpected playoff bid and started its current 4-10-3 freefall in the National Hockey League standings. The defence, especially, has been a mess since top blue-liners Alex Edler and Chris Tanev were injured, again, nine days apart in February.
The Canucks have one win in six games and two of their worst performances of the season came last week against the Vegas Golden Knights. In its last home game, Saturday, Vancouver surrendered five first-period goals for the first time in 15 years. On national TV.
The optimism that surrounded the team and rookie star Elias Pettersson a short time ago — and the pleasant novelty of a playoff race — has been replaced by the annual sense of despair and outrage in Canucks Nation, whose angriest activists are once again shouting for the head of general manager Jim Benning.
Into this, Quinn Hughes comes.
“When I talked to Quinn, I explained to him there’s going to be lots of expectation,” Benning told reporters on Monday. “But just come in and do the things you’re capable of doing and everyone’s going to be happy.
“He’s an excellent skater. The transition part of the game, he’ll help our group. He’ll help us on the power play. I just said: ‘Come in, work hard and have fun, and don’t be nervous. Just do the things you’re capable of doing.’”
The problem is there’s an expectation that Hughes, an American who grew up in the Toronto area, is going to be Pettersson 2.0.
Before this season began, Hughes and Pettersson were considered about equal in terms of skill and potential impact. They were not only the Canucks’ best prospects, but Vancouver’s most exciting draft picks since Daniel and Henrik Sedin were selected two decades ago.
Partly out of the Canucks’ concern over physical strength and the difficulty of incorporating both rookies at the same time, Hughes returned to the University of Michigan while Pettersson, a year older and with an MVP season in Sweden already on his resume, went into the NHL lineup.
Six months later, Pettersson merely leads the Canucks in scoring with 57 points in 57 games and is a heavy favourite to win the Calder Trophy.
Benning admitted he approached Hughes’ advisor, agent Pat Brisson, after the world junior championships in Vancouver at Christmas time to see if the 5-foot-10 defenceman had any interest in joining the Canucks then. But there was no way Hughes was abandoning his college teammates in mid-season.
The Canucks could have used Hughes, although by playing fewer than 11 NHL games, he won’t be subject to the Seattle expansion draft in 2021 when Vancouver projects to protect defencemen Ben Hutton, Troy Stecher and Olli Juolevi.
“I can assure you that from an organizational standpoint, we’re going to look at that and (do) everything to safeguard ourselves,” Benning said. “But let’s just get (Hughes) in here and see where he’s at and see when he starts playing, and we can figure that out as we go.
“Looking back on it, I think we made the right decision. His family and his advisor were part of that decision, too. The reasons for him to go back was to get physically stronger and have another real good year at college. He’s done that. So I feel comfortable with the decision we made last summer.”
It may be one of the few things Benning can afford to be comfortable about.
With Hughes in the NHL, Benning has a foundation in place. The defence still needs to get better beyond Hughes, and the Canucks will be looking to add in free agency or trade for a reliable defencemen. Another winger who can score would also help.
But the Canucks’ progress is evident in the evolution of Pettersson and forwards Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, Hutton and Stecher on defence, goalie Jacob Markstrom, the development of centre Adam Gaudette and the slow but noticeable improvement in wingers Jake Virtanen and Nikolay Goldobin.
As Benning said Monday: “It’s been hard. But going into our season, our objective was the growth and development of our young players. And I think when you look at how they’ve developed over the course of the year, how much they’ve played, how many young players we’ve been able to get up and get games … I think if we look at it that way, it’s been a successful year.”
But it’s been an awful month and owner Francesco Aquilini’s family, which has given Benning a five-year-long runway to get the Canucks rebuilt, is going to want to see continued progress and, soon, playoff revenue.
The bleakness of the current Vancouver tailspin feels a lot like the periods of disintegration during the last three seasons.
There must be progress. There has to be hope.
“Francesco is right on board with doing things the right way – drafting and developing,” Benning said. “Of course, they’re not happy if we’re not winning games, but all owners are like that.”
Playoffs this season were always going to be a bonus for the Canucks. But next year, the Stanley Cup tournament will be the clear goal.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Benning said. “Depending on where we pick in the draft (in June), we’re going to add another real good player to our group. In free agency, maybe we can add a piece. And we need some luck with our health.
“Our goal from a management side is every year to try to take the next step. And for the most part, until these last five weeks, we were in the hunt. If you look at the standings, we’re five wins away from being in a playoff spot. If we can make improvements to our group and win five more games, then you’re part of it. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”