Quinn Hughes on pace to make Canucks history in rookie season

Watch as Quinn Hughes walks in and dekes out Jordan Binnington to give the Pacific Division a 4-3 lead.

"Is Hughes going to break my record?" Doug Lidster to Sportsnet in November.

OTTAWA – The question has lingered about Quinn Hughes, but not long. The answer is coming sooner than anyone thought.

You would need to wait an entire National Hockey League career to confirm a "no." But Hughes is going to answer as a pure rookie, a 20-year-old in his first season removed from college hockey.

Yes, if he stays healthy, Quinn Hughes is going to break Doug Lidster’s 33-year-old record for points in a season by a Vancouver Canucks defenceman.

Lidster had 63 points in 80 games in 1986-87, the offensive peak by a blue-liner over the five decades the Canucks have been in the NHL. In 61 games over fewer than five months, Hughes reached 50 points with an assist in Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime win in Montreal.

He has 20 games left and has been getting stronger almost by the week. He is on pace for 66 points in 81 games unless his production and impact continue to accelerate.

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His first visit to the Bell Centre was actually one of Hughes’ roughest games, literally and figuratively. On his first shift, the Canadiens’ Max Domi delivered a sharp cross-check across the kidneys that drove Hughes to the ice. Just because. On Hughes’ next shift, he was hit heavily by Phillip Danault.

Hughes turned over the puck several times, was partly at fault on one Montreal goal and unlucky on another. But by the end of the game, which Hughes nearly won in overtime the shift before Tyler Toffoli scored, the five-foot-10 defenceman had an assist and led the Canucks with 22:02 of ice time.

Since returning from January’s NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis, where he played, Hughes has three goals and 16 points in 13 games while averaging 22:06 of ice time — often deployed in a shutdown role with Chris Tanev at even strength.

For the season, Hughes’ 50 points rank fourth among NHL defenceman, sandwiched between Tampa’s Victor Hedman and St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo. No defenceman has as many points as he does since the All-Star break.

"For me, what I’ve learned, is your job is to move the puck and then you’ll get it back," Hughes said before the Canucks practised Wednesday in Ottawa ahead of Thursday’s game against the Senators. "That’s the fun thing about playing with good players. The longer you hold on to it, you’ll put yourself in a tough spot. You’ll get hit and stuff like that."

Is he better now than last fall?

"Oh, yeah, absolutely," he said. "The more I play, the more comfortable I get, the better I get."

"I mean this in a good way," Canucks winger J.T. Miller said, "but he doesn’t really have a pulse. I wish I had that (trait) in myself. If it doesn’t go well for him, he turns the page and moves on. If it does go well, he turns the page and moves on. It’s a great quality to have, especially at this time of year. (He is) a super big part of our team and he’s having a helluva year. I’m just happy for him."

Canucks coach Travis Green told reporters in Montreal: "I could probably go on for a while about little things in his game. Incredible skater, great on his edges, great vision. I like that he stays humble. I also like that he can handle highs and lows. If he makes a mistake, he doesn’t crumble. If he gets three or four points, he doesn’t get ahead of himself either."

It’s a recurring comment from teammates and coaches, Hughes’ ability to compartmentalize mistakes and triumphs and not get distracted by either. Sometimes, Hughes actually forgets what happened last game or who’s on the schedule after the next one. He’s a just a kid playing hockey.

This is a big week for him.

Hughes and the Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar, another dynamic game-changing defenceman, have been front-runners for the Calder Trophy since the season began.

Both quickly became known throughout the Western Conference. But this is Hughes’ first trip to the centre of the hockey universe, which spins on an axis between Montreal and Toronto. After the Senators game Thursday, Hughes faces the Maple Leafs Saturday in Toronto, where he spent half his childhood while his dad, Jim, worked in player development for the Leafs.

Clearly, the Canadiens planned for his arrival on Tuesday.

Hughes said he wasn’t expecting the gratuitous and unpenalized early cross-check from Domi.

"He got me right where there’s no padding," he said Wednesday. "It was hard enough to kind of snap my head back, too. I’ve just got to be ready mentally for that. Like, this is how it’s going to be."

He acknowledged that, as everyone told him, intensity, speed and physicality have increased in the stretch drive to the playoffs.

"I’ve loved playing with him every minute," Tanev said of Hughes, who sometimes refers to his 30-year-old defence partner and mentor as ‘Dad.’ "He’s a great kid, a great player and he keeps getting better. Playing in Montreal for the first time is a pretty cool experience. Going back to Toronto, where he lived, it’s going to be a cool experience. I expect him to be pretty pumped up."

Hughes’ heart rate isn’t showing. But he did admit that cresting 50 points — he’s the first Canucks defenceman since Christian Ehrhoff in 2010-11 to get there — is a "pretty cool accomplishment."

"Especially (since) I’ve got 20 games left here," he said.

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