How this unlikely reunion with Boudreau invigorated Hughes' Norris Trophy bid

Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes (43) protects the puck from Detroit Red Wings right wing Carter Rowney (37) in the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

VANCOUVER – This is the second time that Bruce Boudreau has coached a hockey team that has Quinn Hughes in the dressing room, but the player has changed quite a bit since the last time.

“When Bruce got here, he said: ‘I probably haven't seen you in 18 years,’” Hughes, the Vancouver Canucks defenceman, told Sportsnet on Thursday. “Yeah, that’s about right. It's just funny how the world works.”

During his 17-year coaching journey through the minor leagues, before he made it to the NHL as a 52-year-old rookie coach with the Washington Capitals in 2007, Boudreau spent four seasons guiding the Los Angeles Kings’ American League team in Manchester, N.H.

Boudreau’s assistant for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons was Jim Hughes, whose little boys, Quinn and Jack, used to run around the Monarchs’ locker room, playing mini-sticks and talking to the players.

“Quinn was probably four years old, five years old, running around the locker room when Bruce was the head coach,” Jim Hughes recalled. “Jack was probably two years old and Luke was just born. We had Jeff Tambellini (on the team) and Dustin Brown and Tim Gleason and Mike Cammalleri. Quinn and Jack would be at all the games, and they’d run around the locker room.”

When Boudreau was fired in 2005 and left Manchester to coach the Hershey Bears, Jim Hughes became the Monarchs’ head coach for one season. His assistant in 2005-06 was Derek Clancey, hired last month by the Canucks as an assistant general manager, soon after Boudreau replaced Travis Green as head coach.

Like Quinn said, it’s funny how the world works.

Already having a breakthrough season in which Hughes has been nearly as good defensively as offensively, the 22-year-old from Canton, Mich., has played his best hockey under Boudreau, who has given the defenceman more responsibility.

Hughes is third among NHL blue-liners with 26 assists in 33 games, but he is most proud of his defensive work.

“For me personally, going into this year, I could have had zero points in the first 10 games but if I wasn’t scored on, I would have been good with it because I just wanted to stabilize my game and get that (defensive part) back on track,” Hughes said. “So that's where my head was at going into the year.

“My knock growing up was always that I wasn't going to be good defensively because I was too small. That has always been the thing that would bother me when people said it. You can say whatever you want, but that bothers me the most. I obviously didn't like being dash-24 last year.”

Although plus/minus is an archaic statistic, many players still track it. It haunted Hughes all summer that he was minus-24 during the Canucks’ disastrous pandemic-shortened season in 2021.

Sure, he was on the ice for nine empty-net goals against as the Canucks were habitually behind in games. And the Canadian schedule meant Hughes faced either Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews 19 times across 56 games.

Still, the Canucks were outscored 54-38 five-on-five when Hughes was on the ice, and the defenceman’s shots-for percentage was just 49 per cent. Despite his 41 points in 56 games, Hughes was not named on a single Norris Trophy ballot while Cale Makar, the only player ahead of the Canuck in Calder Trophy voting the previous season, was a runner-up to winner Adam Fox.

Determined after last season to prove he can play in his own zone, too, Hughes is plus-10 through 33 games and is driving possession with a shots-for percentage to 54.4. Hughes’ five-on-five goals-for-per-60 minutes is nearly identical to last season (2.30 vs 2.38) but he has cleaved his goals-against-per-60 nearly in half – down to 1.72 from 3.27.

According to naturalstattrick.com, Hughes’ Corsi differential – the difference between shot attempts for and against – has improved to plus-7.18 this season from minus-4.54 per 60 minutes last year.

Now used by Boudreau to kill penalties and defend leads, Hughes is playing like a Norris Trophy candidate on a Canucks team that is 8-0-1 under its new coach.

Boudreau has said that Hughes is as good as any defenceman he has ever coached, and is up there with Washington’s Nic Backstrom as the best passer he has seen.

But the credit for Hughes’ defensive game – or at least his defensive mindset – goes to his father.

“What people don't realize about my dad. . . is that he coached the penalty kill and was a defensive coach,” Quinn said. “When he looks at a goal, he's not going: ‘Oh, that was a nice play by the guy who scored.’ He's looking at where the breakdown was. That's just, like, a different psychology. He will talk to me about the offence, but he never really points out the offensive stuff. He's always giving me pointers in the D-zone. That was always the mindset.

“Everyone thinks it's funny that me and my two brothers are more on the offensive side (of the game) because he was on the defensive side.”

Former first-overall pick Jack Hughes is a point-per-game centre for the New Jersey Devils this season. Selected fourth overall by the Devils last summer, Luke Hughes is a point-per-game freshman at the University of Michigan. The Canucks chose Quinn, five-foot-10 and 170 pounds, seventh in the 2018 draft.

“The passion and the work ethic are the driving forces behind everything,” Jim Hughes said Thursday. “If you're doing it from the inside out -- you're doing it from your heart, and you're doing it from your soul -- that's all we've ever asked from our boys. That was our foundation as a family.

“I think Quinn is playing with great urgency and great intensity. Those two trigger words can help you in many areas of the rink. It's not something he's trying to prove anyone wrong (about his defensive play); he's just trying to be the best version of Quinn Hughes. And I still believe the ceiling is high.

“Bruce is doing a wonderful job in Vancouver. He's empowering people and he's getting the most out of all his players, and it's been an incredible run. Hopefully the team can continue to march up the mountain because it’s just been fun to watch as a parent.”

The senior Hughes, who spent eight years in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization as a minor-league assistant and player-development coach, works as a development coach for super-agents Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry.

He runs high-performance summer skates in Plymouth, Mich., which meant the Hughes brothers’ off-season training partners included NHLers Kyle Connor, Dylan Larkin, Josh Norris, Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield, Andrew Copp and Canuck Tyler Motte.

Quinn Hughes’ training focus was on defending – in not letting extremely talented players generate goals in drills and scrimmages.

“I feel like I've done exactly what I wanted to do the D-zone,” Hughes said. “I've got to keep going and not be satisfied, but it's been good in that aspect -- boxing out, closing on guys, breakouts. I think I've just been a better player this year. We have a better team, but I'm also playing stronger and thinking about those things a bit more. I’m probably a little bit tougher mentally.”

Hughes is changing the perception that he is a one-dimensional offensive player.

“Honestly, I really don't care,” he said. “I know that I've been really good defensively this year, and I've been good offensively. I think my game is well-rounded. I wanted to be one of the best defencemen in the league. If I wanted to do that, I'd have to shape up my D-game and I've done that. If people don't see that, then it’s up to them.”

Boudreau sees it. Hughes may not remember his coach the first time he was around him, in Manchester 17 years ago, but Boudreau remembers Quinn and Jack.

“You don't put two and two together (and think) what they're going to become,” Boudreau said when asked about his recollections. “But you knew that their mother was a skating instructor and Jim was a very smart hockey man, and there was always a good chance that those genes would run into the kids and they would be great players. And they did, and they are."

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