VANCOUVER – On the night Alex Edler set the Vancouver Canucks’ all-time record for goals by a defenceman, you couldn’t help but wonder if new teammate Quinn Hughes will one day be the player who breaks it.
The 19-year-old did not score in his National Hockey League debut, which left the defenceman 94 goals behind Edler, who turns 33 next month and has played 810 games for the Canucks.
But Hughes dazzled with his speed going forward with the puck, made a lot of smart defensive plays and accurate passes, and will be remembered in his debut for one audacious setup.
Young Canucks cornerstones Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser scored in their NHL debuts. Hughes, another foundational piece, merely had a world-class assist, embarrassing Los Angeles Kings’ veteran Trevor Lewis with a pass to himself off the back of the goal, then forcing a save from Jonathan Quick before Boeser scored on the rebound.
The crowd at Rogers Arena gasped in witness at Hughes’ move around Lewis late in the second period, then roared when Boeser popped in the goal. Of course, Canucks Nation has never been known for its measured restraint, either in good times or bad.
In the second minute of the game, there were chants of "We want Hughes! We want Hughes!" because coach Travis Green was incomprehensibly stupid enough to make the rookie wait until the game’s third shift before letting him on the ice.
The building, and much of the West Coast, may not have withstood the earthquake in overtime had Hughes scored during a three-on-three shift in which he, Boeser and Pettersson utterly dominated.
It was a tantalizing glimpse of the Canucks’ future.
The game was eventually decided on a shootout goal by former King Tanner Pearson, who gave the Canucks a 3-2 win.
It was a great game, and an even better night. In the dying of days of March, with the Canucks again hopelessly behind in the playoff race, this was the most anyone had the right to hope for.
"It was surreal to have Canucks fans supporting me like that," Hughes said after being named the game’s third star. "It was a tremendous night for me and my parents. I’m just really happy to be here."
"Quinny making his debut and Eagle breaking the record, this was really cool," Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, another important part of the franchise’s future, said after a 37-save win. "Really fun to be a part of that and witness that and even more special that I was able to play the game."
Edler moved one goal ahead of Mattias Ohlund in the Canucks record book when his second-period wrister from the blue line leaked through Quick to tie it 1-1 on a Vancouver power play. When Edler’s record was announced in-house on his next shift, the sellout crowd of 18,524 stood to cheer for the Swede, an ovation extended when referee Dean Morton pretended to scrape something off the ice to delay the faceoff.
Edler never developed into the Norris Trophy-calibre defencemen some expected but is still indisputably one of the best blue liners in franchise history. And his moment on Thursday will prove even more special if Edler and the Canucks are unable to agree on an extension before he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.
But for most fans, his goal will be remembered less than Hughes’ assist 56 seconds later.
"I was in front of the net when I saw him bank it and I thought: Wow, that was pretty sweet," Boeser said of Hughes’ move around Lewis. "It was an awesome play. He’s obviously an elite player.
"I heard his skating was really good, but it’s really amazing how good of a skater he is and how well he sees the ice."
Of his 180-degree reversal behind the net, then dash to the front of it, Hughes said: "I’m just trying to make hockey plays out there. That’s all I was trying to do. I thought I could pull it off. I want to play my best hockey here and produce and do what I can to pitch in. It was just nice to do that."
His OT shift with Boeser and Pettersson may have been even more impressive. The Kings were barely able to touch the puck and powerless to stop Hughes from circling the zone with the puck before passing to Pettersson. He relayed it to Boeser, who was robbed by Quick.
"I think I could get used to it," Boeser said of the combination.
It was the easiest shift of the game for Demko, who was beaten short side by Adrian Kempe on the Kings’ tying goal at 11:47 of the third period.
"That was fun to watch," Demko said of ‘The Shift.’ "I felt like a spectator for a second. Just watching those guys move the puck and make those reads off of each other was really special. Really talented guys, and they were showing it."
Three weeks ago, Hughes was about to finish his college career at the University of Michigan. A bone bruise to his ankle suffered in the Wolverines’ playoff loss delayed his debut for the Canucks until Thursday.
It looked like Hughes had been in the NHL all season. He is ready for this. So are the Canucks. Pity they have only four games left.
"From Game 1 to Game 2, I’ll be better," he promised. "Game 2 to Game 3, I’ll be better. I’ll just try to keep building."
Hughes said he slept well Wednesday because he is confident in his game. He didn’t have any grandiose dreams about his NHL debut.
He explained: "I think as a kid, you dream about winning Stanley Cups."