Rookie D-man Hughes shows maturity during COVID-19 crisis
A poised and productive presence on the ice, he’s also focused on what’s important right now
Quinn Hughes may only be 20 years old. But numbers can often lie.
In a phone interview with Postmedia News on Tuesday, the Vancouver Canucks rookie was reluctant to talk how the interruption — and possibly cancellation — of the NHL regular season might rob him of the Calder Trophy and a chance to compete in the playoffs. Instead, he wanted to use his platform to remind everyone they need to stay indoors and practice social distancing.
“This isn’t just a little virus,” said Hughes, who along with his brother Jack, a forward with the New Jersey Devils, has been staying with his family in the Michigan area.
“You have to stay inside. I don’t think people appreciated how deadly it is. I saw like 40 kids at the University of Texas flying to spring break last week. And 40 out of the 70 people on the flight got sick.
“It’s disrespectful for young people to go out like that. Be smart.”
Listening to Hughes speak, it’s not hard to understand how he was able to make the leap from college to the NHL look so easy. This is a mature young man, both on and off the ice. The Canucks got a sense of just how mature he was early on, when Hughes found himself pitted against Connor McDavid in the first game of the season.
Hughes called it his “Welcome to the NHL moment.”
Not because he prevented McDavid from scoring, but because the coaches didn’t prevent the matchup from happening.
“Before the whistle, I asked if they wanted to change lines,” said Hughes.
“And (the coaches) said ‘No.’ It was like, ‘OK, they have a lot of faith in me. Screw it. Let’s have some fun.’ ”
The Canucks lost 3-2, but for Hughes it was a major win.
He finished the game with an assist, an even plus-minus rating and 23 minutes and seven seconds of ice time.
More than that, he was filled with confidence.
This isn’t a chip-it-off-the-glass and play-it-safe type of defenceman.
Hughes, who is 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, is at his best when he’s playing without fear. He needs to skate the puck out of trouble and he needs to join the rush without hesitation. He needs to try things that might seem risky. But he also needs a coach who won’t bench him when those offensive instincts blow up in his face.
Good thing for him the coaching staff had Elias Pettersson, the 2019 Calder Trophy winner, the year before.
Like Pettersson and Brock Boeser before him, Hughes got more rope than he knew what to do with. After all, it’s not like the Canucks had much of a choice. If they were going to make the playoffs, then they needed Hughes to find his feet and become an impact player — even if that meant living with his mistakes.
“For me personally, it was great,” said Hughes.
“I was fortunate to play with a lot of good players. Our power play was buzzing. I was put in a lot of positions to succeed. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Hughes didn’t just become one of the best rookie defencemen in the league. He was one of the best defencemen — period — and a big reason why Vancouver took a major step toward contending for the playoffs this year. When the season was put on hold on March 12, Hughes was leading all rookies with 53 points in 68 games — three more than Colorado’s Cale Makar. But he was also tied for fourth among all defencemen in scoring, with only two fewer points than Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman.
In what could be a sign of things to come, Postmedia recently named Hughes the winner of the Calder Trophy, where he received 11 out of a possible 20 first-place votes. That is, if the NHL still decides to hand out awards this year.
“It would obviously mean a lot to be voted top rookie,” said Hughes. “I would be lying if I
didn’t say I was going for that. That was one of my goals of the year.”
This was the year when it all started to click for the Canucks, where all the pieces fit together. From the addition of J. T. Miller to the emergence of Jacob Markstrom as a potential Vezina Trophy candidate to the overall growth of the kids, this was the year when Vancouver was finally eyeing a playoff spot (they had the eighth-best record in the West based on points percentage). But then the season was put on hold.
And while Hughes is keeping everything in perspective (“There’s more important things going on in the world,” he said. “People are dying”), part of him is obviously disappointed that the Canucks likely won’t get a chance to finish what they started.
“Once we got in, you never know what was going to happen,” Hughes said.
“We’re just a bunch of young guys. We were excited.”
I was put in a lot of positions to succeed. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”