That defensive play on Saturday, when Hughes extinguished an Edmonton Oilers scoring chance by intercepting Leon Draisaitl’s pass towards Jesse Puljujarvi, was both significant and symbolic.
It kept the score 0-0 in a game the Canucks went on to win 2-1, and was a snapshot of Hughes’ ongoing evolution as the gifted defenceman works in his second National Hockey League season to improve his defensive game.
There is no question about the 21-year-old’s offensive game. Hughes is one of the most agile, creative defencemen in the world.
With 53 points in 68 games, last season’s Calder Trophy runner-up became the first defenceman since Brian Leetch in 1989 to lead NHL rookies in scoring. And the only other blue-liner to do that in the last 80 years was Bobby Orr in 1967. So, we’re guessing that’s kind of a special thing.
Hughes began this season by piling up 16 points in his first 15 games. But amid the chaos that was the Canucks’ systems play during that span, Hughes was also minus-12 with an expected goals-for percentage at even-strength of just 39.1. Alarmingly, high-danger scoring chances were 70-39 for the opposition when Hughes was on the ice.
It was soon after that, around the second week of February, that the Canucks finally got their first chances to rest and practise since opening the season with 16 games in 27 nights. This is also when the coaching staff and especially assistant Nolan Baumgartner, who runs Vancouver’s defence pairings, began reiterating to Hughes the axiom that sometimes less is more.
In the last 17 games, he has one goal and nine points, but has evened out the high-danger chances while increasing his five-on-five shot share to 52.3 per cent and his expected-goals percentage to 51.9.
Hughes is scoring less, but playing better.
“That's an area we've talked to him about, probably more so this year than last year, picking his spots -- managing the game a little bit better,” head coach Travis Green said Tuesday after the Canucks practised in Ottawa for Wednesday’s rematch against the Senators. “There's a time and place where he needs to just maybe get a puck out of his zone. There's a time and place where maybe he doesn't need to join a rush, or even if he carries the puck in, he doesn't need to make a fancy play. We know what he can do with the puck. We want them to make high-end plays; that's the type of player he is. That's the type of defenceman you look for in today's game.
“But it's also managing it, and... sometimes that does come with time. I think he's made a conscious effort to defend harder in his own zone and pay maybe a little more attention to detail in that area.”
There are factors, besides his age and inexperience, that have worked against Hughes.
He played through several games with the same undisclosed medical condition that slowed him towards the end of the Canucks’ playoff run last summer. After his defence partner, friend and mentor Chris Tanev, left Vancouver in free agency last October, the Canucks cycled through several partners for Hughes, who is only now settling into a tandem with veteran Travis Hamonic. And facing the same six teams over 56 games is kind of like the Canucks playing six playoff series simultaneously, and every opponent is learning more and more about Hughes.
Yes, great players are always a focal point for the opposition, but the focus on stopping – or at least physically punishing – Hughes is much sharper than, say, if the Canucks were playing Eastern Conference teams twice during an 82-game season.
“I'm not going to make excuses,” Hughes told reporters on Zoom. “It does have a little bit of a playoff vibe but, you know, everyone has to deal with that in the entire league. I think it goes both ways.”
On top of everything else, Hughes has been forced to manage his energy levels because he is playing every second night while leading the Canucks in average ice time at 22:37. Hughes’ time on ice of 19:51 in Monday’s 3-2 OT win against the Senators was the first time in 12 games he logged fewer than 21 minutes.
“That's one of the things -- trying to pick and choose your spots because you're playing so much,” Hughes said. “The other part of that is. . . you're playing these teams so many times. You know, sometimes you keep it simple, keep it simple so then they don't expect you to make the move that you're going to make. Sometimes that's just what you have to do.
“Still, for me, when I see my spot, I'll try to take advantage of it. I think that's trying to find that fine line. I think I've done a good job at that and Hammer (Hamonic) helps me out with that as well. Right now, it's all about team. We're just trying to win and we're stringing some games (together).”
The Canucks are 5-1 in their last six games, their best spell of the season, although goalie Thatcher Demko stole them a point or two on Monday when Ottawa outshot Vancouver 46-28.
Winger Tyler Motte, out with an ankle injury since Feb. 6, practised with the Canucks on Tuesday and the speedy, physical bottom-six winger could return to the lineup on Wednesday.
Even with his restrained, more measured play, Hughes remains tied for second in scoring among NHL defencemen with 25 points, including 23 assists, in 32 games.
“Offensively, he's got quite a few points,” Green said. “Defensively, he probably didn't have the start he wanted. It's an area of the game that he's continuing to work on. I think as a young defenceman in the league, that part of the game probably takes a little longer. But I think he's fine. He's having a good year.”