Quinn Hughes didn’t seem the least bit phased by the gaggle of reporters and cameras that surrounded him for his first media scrum as a member of the Vancouver Canucks.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise: on the ice, Hughes is as cool and calm as they come, carrying the puck with deceptive ease. A frequent target of agitators, Hughes doesn’t shy away from confrontation, but rarely lets his emotions get the better of him. Off-ice, he’s just as even-keeled.
It helps that Hughes has grown up around the NHL: his father, Jim Hughes, played high-level college hockey before getting into coaching and front office work. When Hughes was 10, his dad became the director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs. When you combine that with the intense attention Hughes has received throughout his development as a top prospect, this must seem like old hat by now.
When he steps onto the ice for his first NHL game, however, that will be something entirely new. According to Hughes, he’s keeping his own expectations in check.
“I think you always get advice just to be you and stuff like that, but until you go in there and figure it out for yourself, it’s pretty hard,” said Hughes. “So I think for me I just gotta kinda get my feet wet here and figure it out for myself, what I can do here and what I can’t do, and I’m just gonna try to play my game.”
“I don’t need to be a hero or anything like that,” he added. “There’s a lot of really good players here, so I’m just gonna try to get them the puck.”
Hughes might focus on keeping it simple, but fans are eager for a hero to step in and rescue the Canucks’ defence corps. The Canucks have struggled on the backend for several seasons, but more than that, they’ve never had an elite number one defenceman, with the possible exception of the oft-injured Paul Reinhart in the late eighties. Fans are hoping that Hughes will be more than just an everyday defenceman in the NHL, but one of the best offensive defencemen in the league, capable of racking up 60+ points.
Those expectations are a big reason why Canucks GM Jim Benning tried to take the pressure off him after he signed over the weekend.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on him, it’s a big step,” said Benning. “He’s a 19-year-old kid, he’s gonna play his first NHL games. There’s lots of expectation for him and I just want him to come in here and do what he’s capable of and feel comfortable and get experience.”
Head coach Travis Green also tried to downplay his expectations for Hughes, particularly when it comes to the power play. The Canucks’ power play has been dismal over the back half of the season and one of their biggest needs is a true quarterback at the point.
“I’m not going to put sky-high expectations on this guy,” said Green. “Is he going to be a power play guy in the NHL? Yes, he is. But I don’t need him to have expectations where he has to come in and run the power play and be this guy that’s just going to turn it around all of a sudden overnight.”
At the same time, Green acknowledged that Hughes has all the tools to succeed with the man advantage in the NHL.
“His skating ability, his heads up play, I wouldn’t say he has a bullet of a shot, but I think he has a shot that can get through to the net and those are all things that we want to see in due time,” he said. “I’m not going to panic if he’s not all of a sudden one of the top power play guys in the league. It takes some time and again, my job is to make sure that we put the brakes on expectations.
“He’s got enough pressure on him as it is.”
Speaking of pressure: former Canuck Jeff Tambellini, who was an assistant coach with the University of Michigan for the 2017-18 season, didn’t pull any punches when asked about Hughes heading into the 2018 draft.
“People always ask me, who does he play like?” said Tambellini. “You’re not going to want to hear this — and I’m not saying he is — but he plays like Bobby Orr. I’ve never seen a guy possess the puck and skate his own problems away.”
Hughes laughed when Province reporter Ben Kuzma brought up Tambellini’s comparison.
“Bobby Orr — I’m not really sure about that one. Tamby’s a nice guy, I’ll thank him for that, but I think that’s really far-fetched,” said Hughes. “I’m just going to try to do my game and make my teammates better and I know they’ll make me better.”
One of those teammates is another smaller defenceman that went the college route, so knows a little about making the jump directly from the NCAA to the NHL: Troy Stecher.
“I’m just going to tell him not to overthink it, just go out there and play,” said Stecher. “If you overthink it, then you’re probably going to second guess some of your decisions and it’s probably not going to go the way you want. Just go out there and play hockey, it’s just another game.”
According to Stecher, you need to learn by trial and error what will and won’t work when you get to the NHL. Instead of thinking too much about what you need to change, Stecher suggested that change will have to come with time. When asked if there were things that worked for him in college that didn’t work in the NHL, he gave a wry smile.
“Yeah, quite a bit of things,” he said. “I feel like I’m completely different now than even I was in my first year here and what I was in college. Sometimes in college you might be able to dipsy a guy, or think you might have more time and space to make a play, while here, guys close pretty quick, so it’s just all about your reads, you get accustomed to it pretty quick.”
Then there’s the inevitable question of size. Hughes, like Stecher, is 5’10” and still slight at 175 lbs. Stecher balked at saying what he really thought of the size issue.
“I can’t really speak my mind on that,” said Stecher despite reporters laughingly goading him on. “I think the game has changed so much, I think size at the end of the day is going to be a factor if there’s two even guys that are playing at the same level, but I think the NHL is a production-based league.
“I think if you can play you’re going to play. It doesn’t matter what size you are, if you’re going to make an impact positively, you’re going to get your opportunities to make a difference.”
Hughes, meanwhile, pointed to another Canucks rookie, Elias Pettersson, who has had plenty of success despite concerns heading into the season that he was too small for the rigours of the NHL.
“It just emphasizes that you don’t need to be the strongest guy to have success in the league,” said Hughes. “He’s obviously proof of that.”
While Hughes is as excited to get going as fans are to see him in action, both parties will have to wait thanks to an ankle injury he suffered in his penultimate game with the University of Michigan.
“Really anxious,” said Hughes on Wednesday in Vancouver when asked how badly he wants to get back on the ice. “I asked if I could skate actually this morning.”
Instead, the Canucks want to wait to get the results back on his MRI, to make sure there’s nothing to worry about when it comes to his ankle. He blocked a shot on Friday and he says his ankle is at about 80%, but getting better.
“I haven’t skated in a couple days so I don’t know how it feels there, but walking it feels a little bit better, only certain movements hurt,” he said.
Assuming the MRI comes back negative, Hughes will hit the ice right away, though the Canucks want to be sure he’s 100% healthy before the put their blue chip prospect in a game. Besides, there’s no rush: not only are the Canucks effectively out of the playoff picture, keeping Hughes below 11 games played should be a priority.
If Hughes plays more than 10 games, it will count as a professional season for the Seattle expansion draft in 2021. That would mean the Canucks would need to protect Hughes and expose another player unnecessarily.
On Monday, Benning made it clear that’s on their minds as they approach the final games of the 2018-19 season.
“I can assure you from an organizational standpoint, we’re going to look at that and everything to safeguard ourselves from having that happen,” said Benning.
Hughes’ injury might make that a moot point. If he’s not ready to play until next week, Hughes might not even be able to play more than 10 games.