Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
On Day 43, it’s the perfect time to talk about the Vancouver Canucks’ newest and only player to ever wear the number all-time, defenseman Quinn Hughes. He will be starting his first full National Hockey League season after dipping his feet in the pool for five games last season. He joins a young core that already boasts the likes of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Bo Horvat. He also shoulders the load of being the future face of the defense core.
It’s fitting that his debut this season will be against one of the most exciting players in the NHL. Connor McDavid is what the league should aspire to be — dynamic, electric and insanely quick in transition. These superlatives could easily describe Hughes, as well. It should be exciting to see him lock horns with McDavid on opening night.
With all the excitement and anticipation of seeing Hughes in action, it’s easy to forget that he is only a rookie. Hughes will make his share of mistakes in his first season. He’s only human, after all. However, head coach Travis Green and his staff should allow him to make those mistakes. Hughes’ game is all about high risk, high reward. If they discourage it, the Canucks could eliminate what makes him special.
It’s all speculation right now on where Hughes will ultimately play in the lineup. He could play sheltered minutes on a pairing with Tyler Myers deployed primarily in the offensive zone or with Chris Tanev who could cover any mistakes he makes. It will be interesting to see how Green uses the young defenseman this season.
It’s not a stretch to say that Hughes could become a cornerstone defenseman for the Canucks. The way he transitions the puck out of the defensive zone is sublime. In his first NHL game, you could see he thought through the game differently. He also has no fear in his game, which was showcased when he recorded his first NHL point. It’s not every day that you see a rookie defenseman jump into the offensive zone and pass the puck off the net to himself. That definitely won’t be the first time Hughes makes an opposing forward or defenseman look silly when attempting to defend him.
That creativity and lack of fear cannot be taught, and he’s showing it at the tender age of 19. What will he look like when he’s 25 and in his prime? With his work ethic, there is definitely greatness in his future. Hard work combined with elite skill usually translates into a long NHL career.
Combine that with the chemistry he has already shown with Pettersson and Boeser, both five-on-five and three-on-three, Canucks fans are in for a treat in the coming years.
The Influence of Hughes
General manager Jim Benning signaled a changing of the guard by drafting Hughes. He furthered that vision by jettisoning Erik Gudbranson and signing Jordie Benn and Tyler Myers. The defense needed an overhaul and a change in dynamics. Hughes represents a culture shift and a transition to the skill game for the defense core.
The minute Hughes joined the Canucks, there was a feeling that he was going to change the face of it. By having a defenseman like him on the back end, skilled forwards like Pettersson, Horvat, and Boeser know that he will get them the puck somehow. I’m sure they did not feel that way when Gudbranson had the puck.
When your skilled forwards have to always worry about turnovers and bad passes, they cannot fully use their offensive abilities. A well-executed breakout pass is the best thing a forward can ask for from their defense. If Pettersson can receive a perfect pass in flight, his creativity takes over. That same creativity cannot be used when he has to control a bouncing puck from a bad pass. With the speed of the game these days, one bobble can cost you a scoring chance. The importance of a good pass cannot be overstated and Hughes has that skill in spades.
If he is not able to pass the puck out of the zone, Hughes also has the ability to skate it out. That ability is something that has alluded the team’s defense for many years. Fans have watched helplessly too many times as the Canucks failed to get the puck out of the defensive zone. Hughes does not have that problem, as he has the hockey IQ to know when to skate and when to pass. His skating is exceptional too, as he is able to outskate most forecheckers.
The Power Play with Hughes
As for the power play, Green and assistant coach Newell Brown have got to learn from their mistakes. Hughes is the perfect defenseman for the number one power play unit. His style fits with the creativity of Elias Pettersson and the snipe show that is Boeser. He also adds a dynamic the Canucks’ power play has never had in its arsenal. Hughes is a rover in the offensive zone, which will pull the penalty killers out of position.
There were too many times last season where Pettersson was given no room on the power play. This happened because they did not have a threat on the blue line. Just having Hughes on the unit will give Pettersson and Boeser more room to utilize their skills.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of Hughes and the influence he will have on the team, But let’s temper it a bit. He is only 19 years of age and he is still learning. Despite his immense offensive potential, we cannot expect it all to happen this season. With that being said, we could be surprised if he plays with Pettersson and gets consistent power play time and offensive zone starts.
He will probably get a lot of points as assists thanks to his otherworldly playmaking abilities. If he can add some goals to it, he could be a consistent 50-plus point defenseman in his prime. That’s top pairing potential, and it’s not unrealistic to think that he could get there.
If you haven’t figured it out already, Hughes represents hope for the future of the Canucks’ defense core. If Benning continues to build it around the skills of the young defenseman, they are set for the future. Get excited Canucks fans, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s in the shape of Quinn Hughes.