SUNRISE, Fla. — There’s a quiet intensity to Quinn Hughes. It’s always been there, simmering a bit beneath the surface.
When it comes out, at least in terms of his public commentary, it’s expressed with almost stunning clarity.
Hughes lives hockey. His family lives hockey. There’s a reason he’s one of the smartest defenders in the game today, and it’s because he knows this sport inside and out. He tracks obscure records, he’s aware of the statistics and the conversation around the league, and yes, he noticed where he stood in recent lists of the best players in the NHL compiled both by ESPN and The Athletic.
“Oh yeah, I saw the lists, but I’m not going to comment on it,” Hughes said Saturday after playing his best game of the season, and perhaps the most complete single game of his career, in the Vancouver Canucks’ 5-3 victory over the Florida Panthers. “Maybe at the end of the year.”
Regardless of where Hughes ranked in the preseason lists, two things are certain moving forward. The first is that the Canucks’ first-year captain is clearly out to prove something this season: that he’s among the NHL’s best defensemen and that he can lead this team to the playoffs.
The second is that if he plays like this consistently, and if this team succeeds on his back the way they did on Saturday night, Hughes’ two-way play and his standing as a dominant blueliner will be completely undeniable.
Hughes, after all, was dominant on Saturday. It may have been the most impressive single-game performance of his NHL career so far.
In a game that featured a legitimate MVP candidate in Matthew Tkachuk, a perennial Selke nominee in Aleksander Barkov and Vancouver’s two near-40-goal scorers in Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko, who broke the game open in multiple instances, Hughes was the best player on the ice. And it wasn’t close.
He had the game on a string and dictated the pace in all phases of the contest.
When the Canucks built their lead in the second period, it was Hughes who kept the puck alive on a Panthers clearing attempt, then walked the line when he retrieved the puck and uncorked a shot through multiple layers of the Panthers defense. His shot caused chaos in the Panthers crease and Florida took a penalty. Soon after, Vancouver took the lead.
Then as the Panthers pressed, dominating play in the third period, it was Hughes who proved capable of calming down the game. On multiple occasions he got in on the hands of Panthers wingers Carter Verhaeghe, Evan Rodrigues and Sam Reinhart along the wall, cleanly stripping them of the puck and turning play in the other direction.
It wasn’t perfect and as the Panthers cranked up the pressure on Vancouver, Hughes was on the ice for a goal against. It was the first goal against that Hughes had been on the ice for all season. He’d logged 115:40 of total ice time in all situations to open the campaign before an opponent scored against the Canucks while he was on.
That may seem like an obscure stat, but it’s another one Hughes was aware of and tracking.
“Do you know that was the first goal against you were on the ice for this season?” I asked him postgame.
“Yeah, I was keeping track of that. By myself. I wanted to see how long I could go with that one,” Hughes admitted.
“Do you know how long you went?”
“Well, I know I went four games, 25 minutes a game, so that would be 100 … oh but wait, it’s only five-on-five …”
“Oh, I have the number for everything.”
“Whatever. OK, I was only tracking five-on-five. You counting everything?”
“Yeah, it’s 115:40.”
“Oh man, I was going to guess 118.”
“Pretty close, so you’re all over it.”
“Of course, I mean, I always hear it,” Hughes responded thoughtfully, that old chip on the shoulder beginning to show. “Y’know how it is. ‘He’s an offensive defenseman, but he’s not good at defending.’ And I’ve been plus the last two years, and playing big minutes. So for me, the stereotype is there. A lot of guys don’t watch the West, but I’m out here trying to do the best I can.”
Obviously, Hughes’ best is sensational, and not just offensively. Even traditional plus-minus — which dings a player with Hughes’ offensive profile given that he eats fake dashes for short-handed goals against and empty net goals deposited against Vancouver when it’s trailing — underrates his contributions. The simple fact of the matter is that last season when Hughes was on the ice five-on-five, the Canucks outscored their opponents 81 to 61 — for an on-ice goal differential of plus-20 (a far better statistic since it doesn’t arbitrarily mix game stats). When Hughes was taking a breather, Vancouver was outscored 88 to 131.
Or to put it simply, for those in the Eastern time zone: When Hughes was on the ice five-on-five over roughly 1,500 minutes, the Canucks outscored their opponents at a rate comparable to (and actually better than) what the Vegas Golden Knights accomplished as a team last season. When Hughes wasn’t on the ice five-on-five, Vancouver was outscored at a rate comparable to what the Anaheim Ducks accomplished as a team last season.
“He does some stuff though that’s world class,” said Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet postgame. “And when he defends, he defends with quickness. And that’s OK — he can still win a Norris defending with quickness, you don’t have to kill a guy in the corner.
“I think Huggy, he’s got a little chip on his shoulder about (the idea) that he can’t defend,” Tocchet added later in his postgame briefing. “About the idea that he’s just an offensive defenseman and no, he can defend. And I like that.”
Honestly, it’s past time for Hughes’ savvy, well-rounded, two-way game to begin to garner the respect it’s due.
Of course, it also speaks to the extent to which Hughes’ control of the proceedings in Sunrise on Saturday night jumped right off of the ice sheet that we’ve yet to mention his goal — his first of the season — which opened the scoring.
The goal came after Hughes made one of the most preposterous keep-ins at the blue line that I’ve ever witnessed live; an absolute marvel of hand-eye coordination on which the broadcast angle on the play — which still captured how impressive the play was — did the degree of difficulty zero justice.
Later in the shift, Hughes received a pass from J.T. Miller, changed the angle on the wrist shot and stepped into that first goal:
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) October 21, 2023
“Walking the blue line and shooting, he’s got a couple of moves that he worked on this summer,” Tocchet said when asked about how dominant Hughes was on Saturday night in South Florida. “Man, he worked a lot, I don’t know if people realize how much he worked. I don’t want to tell you what he does, I’m not going to give the other team a pre-scout.
“I’m not trying to put pressure on him, but his capability of walking the blue line is outstanding.”
Hughes’ newfound shooting mentality has been one of the most noticeable evolutions in his game in the early going this season. Through five games, Hughes is averaging north of three shots per game and nearly an additional shot-and-a-half per contest above his career average going into this season.
“I’m shooting more for sure, but it’s more about putting myself in spots where I can beat a guy and then shoot,” Hughes said. “Connecting my feet and my hands, beating a guy. In the past when I’d beat a guy, I wouldn’t be in a position to shoot it. I’m focused in on that now.”
Of course, there’s a balance. Hughes’ best skill is his passing and on a team loaded with world-class finishers, there’s a balance he has to strike in terms of distributing the puck. Of course, that’s a balance that comes naturally to a signal caller of Hughes’ calibre.
“I think the more I shoot, the more will open up,” Hughes said when I asked him if his new shooting mentality could open up additional passing lanes. “It’s more than my shot, it’s rebounds and tips. But on the power play, pre-scout, if I’m shooting a bit more they have to worry about that.
“That said, I have to be aware. Like would you rather my shot or Petey’s slap shot? It’s going to be Petey’s slap shot every time. And his slap shot opens up my shot, and when that happens, I’m going to try and use it.”
While Hughes managed to beat Sergei Bobrovsky with a point blast for his first of the year, his evolution as a shooter is about more than just his goal on Saturday. It’s that, in truth, he could have two or three already in this young season.
“Honestly, I think I could’ve scored in every game,” Hughes said. “I know the exact plays, too. I could’ve scored in Philly, I should’ve scored in Edmonton, I hit the post in Philly, but I also had a mini breakaway and should’ve just tried to go five-hole. I know I’m getting my looks so I know it’s going to come. And I’m getting more looks because of my mindset.”
Getting his first goal of the year was also something of a weight off of his shoulders. It took him until Dec. 27th last season to score his first of the campaign.
When he finally scored, he was nearing an ignominious record. It was a milestone Hughes was aware of, though it received little meaningful media coverage as it approached.
“It feels good (to score my first), I mean obviously I almost broke the record last year,” Hughes said when asked how he viewed his first goal.
“Huh, what record?” I interrupted, confused.
“Most games by a guy scoring a point per game without a goal.”
“Yeah. No, I think I was two or three games away, and that’s not a record you want to break.”
“Wait, were you tracking that?”
“No, but the trainers were busting my balls about it.”
There will be no ignominious goal-less milestones for Hughes to sidestep this season. And no ignoring Hughes’ dominance — on offence and in his own end, too — if he keeps playing like this.
(Photo of Quinn Hughes being congratulated by teammates: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)