Canucks' Hughes embraces rising expectations after sparkling rookie year

VANCOUVER – Going into his first Stanley Cup tournament, the concerns about Quinn Hughes were strikingly similar to questions about him after he was stolen with the seventh pick of the 2018 NHL draft.

Is he strong enough at five-foot-10 and 170 pounds to deal with being targeted physically and relentlessly? How will he handle the intense schedule, and what about the burden of expectations that he should be one of the Vancouver Canucks’ best players each night? As a rookie.

And then the 20-year-old defenceman merely piled up nine points in his first seven playoff games, five of them wins, to launch the Canucks on their surprising three-round run in the Edmonton bubble. Until Hughes aggravated a still-undisclosed injury that slowed him at the start of Vancouver’s final series, a seven-game loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, the kid from Michigan was not only the Canucks’ best player but as good as anyone in the Edmonton bubble.

Hughes soared beyond expectations, validating his status as a Calder Trophy finalist and establishing himself on a broader stage as one of the most exciting young stars in the NHL.

Really, it wasn’t surprising at all that Hughes sparkled at the end of his historic first year with the Canucks, when only the COVID-shortened regular season kept him from likely breaking Doug Lidster’s franchise record of 63 points by a defenceman.

Hughes had 53 points in 68 games as a pure rookie.

"I think I had a good year, and I think our team had a really good year," Hughes said Thursday during a year-end media availability by video conference. "I think expectations will probably be even higher going into the next season after what we just did. I like that."

Certainly, expectations will be higher for Hughes, who in his first NHL season was arguably better than any Vancouver defenceman has been in the last 50 years.

Besides his record scoring pace and power-play skills that helped Vancouver finish fourth in the league with the man-advantage, Hughes led the Canucks’ defence in even-strength shots-for (52.5 per cent) and expected-goals (52.9 per cent).

Not only was he ready for the NHL this season, but Hughes indicated this week he would have been ready for it the year before when he was returned to the University of Michigan after his draft.

"I definitely think there were challenges, of course," he said of his rookie campaign. "It’s the hardest league in the world, so obviously you’re going to go through things. I think I played 68 games; you’re obviously going to have good nights and bad nights. But I think I was probably overprepared. I almost left (to join the Canucks) after my first year of college and then decided to come back for one more year. I think I was probably over-ripe and ready to go in. I think that helped me."

You wonder, of course, how much he would have helped the Canucks had he played in 2018-19.

The decision to play a sophomore season at Michigan was jointly made between the Canucks and Hughes, as both sides had concerns about where he would play – and if the American Hockey League would be better for him than college hockey – if it turned out he wasn’t physically ready for the NHL.

But it was clear from the first game this season that he not only belonged in the best league in the world but would thrive in it when coach Travis Green sent Hughes and defence partner/mentor Chris Tanev out for the opening faceoff against Connor McDavid.

From his first game in Edmonton to his last game in Edmonton, Hughes’ rookie season was a joyride.

He is a huge part of the NHL’s golden dawn for young defencemen, who are changing the way the game is played. Miro Heiskanen is in the Stanley Cup Final with the Dallas Stars. Hughes starred for the Canucks, Cale Makar for the Colorado Avalanche, Shea Theodore for the Golden Knights.

Makar is also a Calder finalist, and the rookie-of-the-year vote that will be revealed during the Stanley Cup Final is expected to be one of the closest ever. In a radio interview this week, Hughes said he closely follows his rivals.

"Of course, I watch," Hughes said. "It would be naïve to say I don’t. I obviously watch those guys because they’re fun to watch, and I also want to see if I can learn anything or take anything from their games. You’re always hearing about them. People are saying: ‘Did you see this goal or see that goal.’ That just motivates me to see what I can do.

"It’s pretty cool have a couple of guys like (Hughes and Makar) come into the league together. I’m sure we’ll be playing against each other for a long time. And Miro’s in the finals now, and that’s pretty cool. I think that’s what me and Cale are trying to do. Hopefully, all three of us play a long time."

Just as long as Hughes does it all for the Canucks. With one season remaining on his entry-level contract, Hughes is entitled to open negotiations soon on an extension that could be precedent-setting.

"No, there hasn’t been (any talk) and I don’t think there should be," he told Sportsnet 650. "I think they’ve got to worry about some (other) guys this year. I don’t think they should look at me before they know what’s going to happen with those guys.

"The biggest thing we all realize is we’ve got a really good team and we can maybe do something special. (The playoffs) just gave us the confidence to know coming into next year, we’ve got a really good squad. People always say ‘the future, the future, the future.’ But, I think, we’re there almost. The time is almost now."

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