3 bold Canucks predictions for 2022: Quinn Hughes will get Norris votes

Vancouver Canucks' Quinn Hughes is introduced before the Canucks and Minnesota Wild play an NHL game in Vancouver, on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (CP/file)

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks have a distinct “before” and “after” for this season.

Before Travis Green was fired as coach and Jim Benning as general manager on Dec. 5, and after Bruce Boudreau was hired as coach and Jim Rutherford as president in the days that followed.

For the rest us, the annual demarcation point is the change of calendars on New Year’s Eve, when we make brave resolutions we often fail to keep. With that in mind, here are three (sort of) bold predictions for the Canucks in 2022.

Quinn Hughes will be on Norris ballots

In this Golden Era for skilled, puck-moving defencemen, the Canucks’ dynamic blue-liner isn’t winning the Norris Trophy this season unless he further upgrades his stellar play and his team makes its way back to NHL relevancy. But as long as Hughes’ scoring totals – 26 points, including 24 assists, in 30 games – keep him among the top NHL defencemen, the 22-year-old’s vastly improved defensive play should get the attention of award voters who did not name the Canuck on a single Norris ballot last season. Norris winner Adam Fox appeared on 99 ballots, and 18 defencemen received at least one voting point. But not Hughes.

The former Calder Trophy runner-up said that he was tired of getting scored on and was determined to be better without the puck this season.

“I'm tired of hearing about I'm just an offensive defenceman or whatever,” Hughes said after a Dec. 8 game in which new coach Boudreau allowed him to kill penalties. “The knock has always been that I'm not very good defensively. And yeah, I'm not going to be as good as some guys defensively. That's the reality. (But) I think that it's something I can build into my game.”

Hughes frequently mentions his plus/minus, which was minus-24 last season and plus-9 through the holiday break this year. But his advanced statistics are significantly better across the board than last season. His shots-for percentage of 56 is seven points higher than last season and his expected goals-for has improved to 51.5 from 45.5 per cent. Hughes’ goals-against-per-60 have declined to 1.9 from 2.3.

Under Boudreau, Hughes is starting as many shifts in the defensive zone as the offensive one for the first time in his career.

If you’re picking the Norris today, nobody is dislodging 2021 finalists Fox, Victor Hedman and Cale Makar from the top three. But Hughes is getting himself into the conversation.

Bruce Boudreau is getting another contract

This prediction qualifies as bold only because Boudreau coached the Canucks for just six games before the league shut down for Christmas and COVID. You may have heard also that Vancouver didn’t lose any of those games.

The 66-year-old, unemployed for nearly 22 months, agreed to take over the Canucks on a two-year deal offered by owner Francesco Aquilini. But Aquilini vetted his coaching choice with Rutherford, who hadn’t yet been hired as president when Boudreau signed.

Boudreau has so obviously connected with players, re-energizing the dressing room and the best Canucks while implementing an aggressive, attacking style, that it’s hard to see how he isn’t the right choice to coach the team beyond this season. The gregarious, self-deprecating coach also adds value when he is presented to the media – and fans. Rutherford isn’t likely to leave Boudreau dangling by making him coach out the final year of a show-me contract.

There is going to be intense attention after this season on the status of captain Bo Horvat and key forward J.T. Miller, whose contracts expire after next season. But neither one is getting a new deal ahead of their coach.

The Canucks' core will change

With Horvat and Miller eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2023, when Elias Pettersson will have only one year remaining on his bridge deal and rookie Vasily Podkolzina a season to go on his entry-level contract, the Canucks won’t be able to keep the whole band of young players together.

Goalie Thatcher Demko, winger Conor Garland and defenceman Hughes are just starting long-term contracts that look like bargains. Interestingly, they’ve also been the three best Canucks this season.

The core player most vulnerable is winger Brock Boeser, who is finishing a three-year bridge deal and slumbered through the first quarter of this season but has exploded under Boudreau. The 24-year-old former Calder runner-up is third in Canucks scoring (74-93-167 in 210 games) since Pettersson arrived at the start of the 2018-19 season.

Boeser is an elite, offensive contributor. But while the $5.875-million salary on his bridge deal has been reasonable, the looming qualifying offer of $7.5-million for the restricted free agent is not. It doesn’t mean Boeser is getting traded, but the Canucks can’t afford that figure as a launch point on a new contract if they want to have enough money left to also sign Horvat and Miller a year later, and Pettersson the season after that.

Something has to give. Or someone has to go.

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