When Quinn Hughes signed his entry-level contract with the Canucks over a week ago, fans were eager to see the fleet-footed defenceman in action. Regrettably, Hughes wasn’t ready to hit the ground running, or the ice skating, as it were. While he told reporters when he first arrived in Vancouver that he had asked to skate that morning, the Canucks wanted to wait for test results to come back.
In fact, Hughes has yet to skate with the Canucks at all, as an MRI revealed a deep bone bruise as a result of a shot he blocked in the penultimate game of his NCAA season.
The Canucks and Hughes got some good news on Friday, however. While Hughes didn’t take the morning skate with the team, he should be back on the ice soon after further testing failed to reveal further damage to his ankle.
“CT scan is negative and it’s what we originally thought: he’s got a pretty bad bone bruise and he’ll skate when he can,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “I’ve said from day one I’d like to play him….he hasn’t skated for a while and he’s going to have to skate for a bit and feel comfortable.”
A CT scan wouldn’t provide any further information on a bone bruise — they don’t show up on either a CT scan or x-ray — so they would have been looking for a crack, fracture, or break that might have been missed by an x-ray or obscured in an MRI.
What this means is that the only thing keeping Hughes off the ice is the comfort level of Hughes himself. A little over a week ago, he was still feeling pain when moving in certain ways and the different movements and pressure when on the ice could cause different types of pain.
Hughes is likely to start skating soon and could make his Canucks debut in short order. That leaves just one question: who’s he going to play with?
The Canucks don’t have many candidates left on the right side. Erik Gudbranson got traded and Chris Tanev’s season is done after fracturing his leg blocking a shot. That leaves Troy Stecher, Alex Biega, and Luke Schenn.
Alternatively, the Canucks could play Hughes on his off-side on the right, but the pickings are slim on the left side as well. Ben Hutton is injured and hasn’t started skating and Derrick Pouliot has fallen so far out of favour that both Guillaume Brisebois and Ashton Sautner have been in the lineup ahead of him. There’s also elder statesman Alex Edler and the newly-signed Josh Teves, who himself has yet to get into a game.
You could make an argument for pairing Hughes with the Canucks’ most experienced defenceman in Edler, but Green is unlikely to play a rookie on his off-side, particularly when he leans so heavily on the Edler pairing to play tough minutes.
In my books, the obvious choice is Stecher. Among a certain segment of hockey fans, that might not be a popular suggestion for one simple reason: size.
Hughes is generously listed at 5’10”, as is Stecher. Putting them together would likely immediately make them the smallest pairing in the NHL. That would lead to questions of how the pair will deal with the big forwards of the opposition along the boards and in front of the net.
When Hughes was asked the inevitable size question, he dismissed it, saying, “I think there’s probably one guy on every team that’s like that,” but he and Stecher together will make two. Can that work?
I think so. We’ve seen how Stecher competes against bigger forwards, constantly battling hard and coming out with the puck more often than not. Battling in front of the net has become less and less a part of the game, as teams will often leave that forward there, focussing instead of winning the puck and tying up the forward’s stick than taking him out of the play physically.
More importantly, a pairing that can move the puck up ice effectively won’t be playing as much in their own end to begin with. Hughes is a sublime skater and often doesn’t have to worry about winning battles along the boards as he already has the puck and is skating out of danger before opposing forwards can get there.
Stecher, for his part, would love to play with Hughes.
“You always want to play with a guy that plays with the puck,” Stecher said last week. “You don’t want to defend, so if we get that opportunity, I’d try to make the most of it.”
Stecher brought up a former teammate with the Penticton Vees as an example of how he can play with a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman like Hughes.
“I played in juniors with Mikey Reilly, actually we were a pairing for my whole second season there,” he said. “I haven’t seen Quinn play live, but I’ve seen videos, and they kind of have a bit of similarities with their skill set and their edgework and Mikey and I had a lot of success, so if we get that chance, then maybe you never know what could happen.”
They certainly did see a lot of success. Reilly, now with the Montreal Canadiens, racked up 24 goals and 83 points in 51 games while paired with Stecher in 2011-12, as the Vees went on an unprecedented 42-game winning streak. They were the best team in BCHL history.
Hughes is another level above Reilly, but Stecher has proven himself as a legitimate top-four defenceman, whose steady defensive game and ability to move the puck would make him an excellent fit with the free-wheeling Hughes. The two together would certainly be short in stature, but could do big things for the Canucks.