In the eyes of Canucks’ Hughes, there’s always room to be better

Vancouver Canucks' Quinn Hughes (43) is checked by Seattle Kraken's Joonas Donskoi (72), of Finland, as he skates with the puck during the second period of a pre-season NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Thursday, September 29, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — After breaking single-season assists and points records by a Vancouver Canucks defenceman – franchise marks that had stood since long before he was born – Quinn Hughes went into the summer determined to improve in another area. Now, he wants to score more goals.

“He always says that,” coach Bruce Boudreau said Thursday. “He says: ‘I can do better, I can do better.’ For him, there’s no ceiling in that he is driven to be as good as he can be.

“It’s a built-in desire, the way-you’re-made type thing. Some guys are just happy to be here. Some guys want to be better than everybody in the league. Usually when you look at the stars, that’s who you’ve got.”

A week shy of his 23rd birthday, Hughes is already the best defenceman in Canucks’ history, able to dictate shifts with his pace and agility and make passes, Boudreau said, as well as anyone he has ever coached.

Hughes was the best even before he validated that standing by eclipsing Doug Lidster’s 1987 record of 63 points by a Vancouver defenceman last season. Hughes also erased the 1977 record by Dennis Kearns of 55 assists in a season.

He finished with 60 assists and 68 points in 76 games, and would have had more points had he not entered the season focussed largely on improving his defence.

Embarrassed at going minus-24 – an antiquated statistic but one that Hughes cited and many National Hockey League players still track – during the 2021 pandemic season, the defenceman from Michigan reduced his goals-against-per-60-minutes last year by nearly a half point while orchestrating a 25-goal turnaround in his five-on-five scoring differential.

But he scored only eight times, and has only 19 goals in his three seasons, fewer than each of the NHL’s blue-line giants – Cale Makar, Victor Hedman and Roman Josi – scored last season alone.

“They really rip the puck, so I don’t know if I can be up there,” Hughes said Thursday, the morning after skating miles to help the Canucks beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-4 in a pre-season game. “But I think I can get to 13 or 14 goals, for sure.

“I don’t want to be running around with my head cut off. Those guys are unbelievable players. But for me, with this team, we’re not going to win too much if we’re having games like last night. I don’t really know what I can get to (for goals) but I’m going to try my best. I feel better this year than I did last year, and we’ll just keep going from there.”

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In Wednesday’s win, the Canucks’ first but also just Hughes’ second pre-season game, the defenceman will be remembered for getting scorched one-on-one by Connor McDavid, who burst through a picket fence of Vancouver forwards in the neutral zone and got on top of Hughes in a hurry, catching him slightly flat-footed. With the Oilers scoring two shorthanded goals, Hughes finished minus-three.

But he also had a couple of power-play assists, attacked the offensive zone with the puck numerous times and launched a half-dozen shots. It was Hughes’ desire to be more dangerous offensively that led him to suggest to Boudreau in the summer that he could try playing on the right side, which allows the lefty to cut towards the middle of the ice with the puck on his forehand.

“I had a couple of Grade-As (scoring chances),” Hughes said of Wednesday’s game. “Still, just watching my clips, I think that I can incorporate some of the things I’m talking about a bit more even. A little bit of it is habit, but I’ll get there.”

But from which side of the ice?

Boudreau’s experiment with Hughes on the right side of an elite pairing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been a constant talking point around the Canucks since training camp opened two weeks ago. But against the Oilers, with his team 0-3-2 in the pre-season, Boudreau moved Hughes back to his natural left side and reunited him with Luke Schenn.

Ekman-Larsson instead skated with Tucker Poolman, while Kyle Burroughs partnered Tyler Myers. Myers was absent from Thursday’s practice at the University of British Columbia, and Boudreau revealed the defenceman has “something” and is out day to day.

The Canucks finish their pre-season Friday against the Arizona Coyotes at Rogers Arena.

“Either way, he’s very good,” Boudreau said, stickhandling a question about which side Hughes will play. “He plays so many minutes that he plays with everybody in the end. The biggest thing this summer was we wanted to make him feel comfortable playing on the right side. If the situation arises, he can play on the right side without a problem, and he’s comfortable with it.”

If the situation arises? So that sounds like he’ll be opening the regular season on the left side next week in Edmonton.

“No idea,” Hughes said. “I’m going to play where they want. I told him from the start, ‘I’m happy to play either way.’ I thought me and Luke did really well last night. I thought me and OEL had two great periods against Seattle (last weekend). From the beginning, I said I’ll play wherever they want me to play. It also depended on how Poolsy (Poolman) was feeling and some other guys. I’m good with whoever.”

Actually, he’s generally great with whoever.

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