Having a player in the conversation for the Calder Trophy is something Vancouver Canucks fans have become familiar with. During the 2017-18 season, Brock Boeser was a nominee for the Calder but was edged out by New York Islanders forward, Mathew Barzal.
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The following season, Canucks fans saw Elias Pettersson win the Calder after his impressive rookie season. This season, fans have the privilege to watch Quinn Hughes, who is having a stellar season for the Canucks. The rookie defenseman is a strong candidate for the Calder due to his lead in points and minutes among rookies.
The Calder Trophy is awarded to players who are considered rookies. In order to be considered a rookie, a player must not have played more than 25 games in previous seasons. They also must not have played in six or more games in any of the two preceding seasons. Lastly, the age cut off for a rookie is any player who is 26 years of age or older by Sept. 15 of that season.
Hughes’ Journey to the NHL
Hughes was born in Orlando, but the family moved to Toronto after Jim Hughes, Quinn’s father, got a job as an assistant with the Toronto Marlies. He went on to play for the Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA and progressed into a top-10 pick in the 2018 Draft. The Canucks were fortunate to be able to take Hughes with the seventh-overall pick. Hughes played in his first game on March 28, 2019, against the Los Angeles Kings.
He had three assists in the five games he played for the Canucks that season. Prior to the 2019-20 season, Hughes was considered a candidate for the Calder but wasn’t considered a favorite like his younger brother, Jack, who was selected with the first-overall pick by the New Jersey Devils in the 2019 Draft.
Quinn’s Rookie Season
Hughes has had an impact on the Canucks this season and is one of the reasons the team holds first place in the Pacific Division. Through 57 games, he leads all rookies with 44 points, two points ahead of Cale Makar.
He is sixth in points for the Canucks but has 21 more points than the next defenceman on the team, Alex Edler, who’s missed nine games this season. Hughes also leads rookies in minutes played per game at 21:35. He participated in the 2019-20 NHL All-Star game alongside Pettersson and Jacob Markstrom for the Pacific Division.
Joining Elite Company
Winning the Calder would be an important accomplishment in Hughes’ young career as it puts him in a class with the likes of Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, Jacques Laperriere, Ray Bourque, and Brian Leetch. Those five d-men have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Only 11 defensemen have won the Calder since the trophy was introduced back in 1933.
Prior to the 2019-20 season, Hughes was considered a candidate for the Calder but wasn’t considered a favorite like his brother, Jack. Jack, Kappo Kakko — the second-overall pick — and Makar were considered strong favorites for the Calder Trophy heading into the season.
In the salary cap era, only two defensemen have won the Calder Trophy. Florida Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad in 2015 and Hughes’ teammate in Vancouver, Tyler Myers, won in 2010. Ekblad finished his rookie season with 39 points in 81 games, while Myers finished with 48 points in 82 games.
Hughes has already passed Ekblad’s total through 57 games and only has four points less than the total Myers did in 2010. Hughes is projected to finish with 63 points in 81 games.
Impact on Canucks
Canucks fans have not witnessed a player with the skillset Hughes has before. He is the first defenseman to display speed and dynamic skills for the franchise. Christian Ehrhoff was the last defenseman to hit the 50-point mark with the team. If Hughes stays healthy and on pace, he only needs six points to be the first defenseman to hit 50 points for the Canucks since the 2010-11 season.
Since the departure of Ehrhoff, Canucks haven’t had a defenseman who has surpassed the 34-point mark, which Hughes has already done. He is fifth in points for the Canucks and is a driving force for the back end.
Hughes vs Makar
Although other rookies have a case for the Calder this season, these two are the favorites and the most likely to win. Makar was the strong favorite early in the season as he took the rookie scoring lead, but an injury allowed Hughes to get back into the race. Now the two are close in points with Hughes holding a two-point lead. The two also made history by taking the fifth (Makar) and seventh (Hughes) fewest games to reach 40 points for defencemen.
The two have similar roles on their respective teams. The difference lies in their offensive-zone play as Hughes creates scoring chances for his teammates at a better rate, while Makar transitions the puck more successfully. Makar is more aggressive in taking shots from the slot, while Hughes chooses to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Hughes leads his team with 36 assists this season and has six more assists than Makar, while Makar has four more goals.
Future of Defensemen in the NHL
With Makar and Hughes in the Calder race, the 2019-20 rookie class displays a future filled with two very skilled defensemen. They join the likes of Buffalo Sabres defender Rasmus Dahlin and Dallas Stars’ Miro Heiskanen as young dynamic players in the league. They are examples of how defenders have become more offensive over the past few seasons.
The race for the Calder will go down to the wire between these two players. Regardless of who wins the award, both will be top-end defencemen and consistently in the Norris Trophy conversation for years to come.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.