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Canucks: How Quinn Hughes took his game to the next level this season

Quinn Hughes is on pace for one of the best seasons ever by an NHL defenceman, so how did he take that step forward in his game?
Quinn Hughes has utterly dominated for the Vancouver Canucks this season.

On Tuesday night, all three Hughes brothers will face each other in a game for the first time ever in a Hughes-a-palooza for the ages.

Younger brothers Jack and Luke Hughes are in Vancouver with the New Jersey Devils to face their oldest brother, Quinn Hughes, with the Vancouver Canucks. Of course, they’re not just brothers; they’re also three of the best players in the NHL, which is truly remarkable.

Quinn Hughes is fifth in the NHL in points and leads all defencemen in scoring with 9 goals and 34 points in 25 games. Jack Hughes leads the NHL in points per game with 30 points in just 17 games. Luke Hughes leads all rookie defencemen in scoring with 14 points in 22 games.

“It’s great for hockey,” said Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet after Tuesday’s morning skate. “Look at the talent of those three guys. It’s incredible…For me, how close they are as brothers and how much they love each other and how much they want each other to do so well is really the story. It’s a really close-knit family.”

While their father, Jim Hughes, was a professional hockey coach as the boys grew up, including a stint as director of player development with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was their mother, Ellen Weinberg-Hughes, who deserves a lot of credit for getting them started in hockey. She was a multi-sport star in soccer, lacrosse, and hockey at the University of New Hampshire and she passed on her smooth-skating style to her sons when she taught them how to skate.

From there, the Hughes brothers’ passion for the game took over, as they became sponges for hockey skills and knowledge. From long hours spent at the outdoor rinks in Toronto, to absorbing lessons from William Nylander, who billeted with the Hughes family, to breaking down plays they saw on TV with their parents, the brothers got a high-level hockey education right from a young age.

“You’ve got to just keep pushing yourself up the mountain,” said Jim Hughes on Donnie and Dhali: The Team. “You’ve got to keep getting better, you’ve got to keep loving the sport. The kids have just kept loving the sport and it’s in their heart and in their soul.”

Quinn Hughes exemplifies that idea of constantly getting better. This season has seen the newly-minted Canucks captain take a massive step forward in his game.

"He's always looking to figure out ways to improve."

Hughes was already one of the top defencemen in the NHL with 68 and 76 points in his past two seasons. This season, however, he’s already set a new career high with nine goals through 25 games and is on pace for 112 points, which would land him in the top ten for the most points by a defenceman in a single season.

That kind of step doesn’t happen by accident.

“It’s got to come from inside your heart,” said Jim Hughes. “So, he’s always looking to figure out ways to improve and expand his game, add layers to his game. He’s constantly watching videos and clips — like so many other players in the league, so many elite players, they’re all doing the same thing.

“But in Quinn’s case, he’s got a plan in the summer. He’s got a program that he has in place and it’s strength and conditioning, it’s shooting the puck, and it’s movements and trying to figure out how to exploit his opponents.”

That latter element — exploiting opponents — seems key. What Hughes has done this season in manipulating opponents in the offensive zone and creating opportunities for himself and his teammates is remarkable to watch. 

Darryl Belfry, who has worked with both Quinn and Jack Hughes in recent years, spoke about how Quinn has taken his game up several notches on the PDOcast with Dmitri Filipovic. 

For Belfry, the key to going from a 70-point defenceman like Hughes already was to being a potentially 100-point defenceman in the Norris conversation was goalscoring. Hughes was piling up assists, but goals were harder to come by.

“A clear pathway for Hughes to take the next step in his career was to figure out, could he score [goals] at a higher level in this league?” said Belfry.

The key to Hughes' improved goalscoring isn't his shot

While many have praised Hughes for improving his shot, and he certainly has, that wasn’t the primary issue in Belfry’s mind.

“You can make improvements with your shot, for sure. That’s not an overnight process. It takes a couple of years and he’s put the time in over the last couple of years to get it,” said Belfry. “But what really puts it over the top — scoring, especially as a defenceman, it’s a determination to get into scoring areas.”

The classic idea of a goal-scoring defenceman is someone like Al MacInnis, who had a booming slap shot from the point. As goaltending has developed over the years, however, the point shot has become less and less useful.

“Most of the shots that defencemen take are not good shooting positions,” said Belfry. “The point shot could really be the worst spot to shoot the puck from. You might be better off to shoot the puck from below the goal line and have a higher scoring rate than you would from the point.

“That’s not to say you can’t generate goals from there because you clearly can. You can shoot it, it can be dangerous, it can be difficult to see through traffic, it can produce second-chance opportunities at the net, for sure. But if you’re trying to score 20 goals from just shooting from the point, I think that that’s really difficult to do.”

In the Hockey IQ newsletter, Greg Revak claimed that the shooting percentage on point shots with traffic is just 3%. The shooting percentage without traffic is 1%: “Basically, it’s playing catch with the goalie.”

“I think when you look at [Cale] Makar, you look at any of the defencemen who score at a high rate, those guys find their way into scoring areas,” said Belfry. “They’re in the slot, they’re coming downhill, they’re working on diagonals, they’re leading the rush or joining the rush — these are the things that these guys are doing.”

How Hughes is getting to better shooting positions

It’s clearly a lesson that Hughes took to heart this offseason, as he’s added all sorts of slippery moves along the blue line that are designed primarily to get himself into a better shooting position. That has led to him getting more opportunities from closer to the net, particularly moving down the left side of the ice, where he has scored most of his goals this season.


Belfry outlined the process of working on this aspect of the game. It starts with looking at a player’s body of work — where are they getting shots from and are those shots effective or are they just getting saved or blocked? From there, he looks at the athlete’s assets and how they might best be used to create better opportunities.

In the case of Hughes, his skating with the puck is his best asset, where other players might need to do more off the puck to get into better scoring positions. What Hughes is doing more this season is using that skating ability to attack a defending player’s heels: taking advantage of the direction a player’s skates are facing as they try to move into his shooting and passing lanes and attacking in the direction they are least able to move.

“They’re almost the easiest to manipulate is that strong side defensive forward,” said Belfry. “[Hughes] gets the puck, he starts dragging you to the middle, he’s shown that he’s probably going to shoot it. So now you’re in an awkward position because you have to try to shot block and shot blocking technique is you might have to go to one knee, you might have to get your feet together with your stick — your posture in shot blocking is not really a great posture to then be agile.”

“So, you’re gonna get his heels,” he added, “and then the second you show your heels, boom, he’s going the other way.”

Belfry suggested that getting into those better scoring positions is often a matter of changing the mindset from shooting the puck being just one option among many to shooting the puck being a primary option.

“More often than not, defencemen have a hard time scoring because they don’t figure out routes to put themselves in dangerous positions,” said Belfry. “Their shot is the last option on the list.”

He outlined a defenceman’s typical thought process, perhaps looking at their defence partner first, then looking for an interior pass or a backdoor play and then, finally, when all of those options are exhausted, trying to shoot, at which point they can do little more than just throwing the puck on net.

“That’s very different than, all I’m doing is watching for the puck and once I get it, I’m going to attack the areas that I want to attack,” said Belfry. “Once I get in there, now I’m looking to generate my shot. If it’s there, I’m taking it. If it’s not there, then I’m gonna make the next play. That’s the difference.”

"I know going into the game that I'm gonna get one of those looks."

Of course, once a player is in a better scoring position, there’s still the matter of putting the puck into the net, with Belfry running through the questions he and the player have to ask: “What shot are you going to shoot? What are your assets there? How do you shoot that shot? What type of shot? How can you create a more high-danger situation — can we move the goalie? If you could, how do you do that? And then what are the shot locations — where is the goalie most vulnerable?”

In a game situation, of course, the skill of the athlete takes over in those situations, but it’s the work that’s put in during the offseason — the analysis, the repetition, and adjusting the mindset — that leads to that payoff in the moment.

Belfry pointed specifically to one goal Hughes scored this season against the San Jose Sharks. 

“The athlete does what the athlete does. You do all that work, then they get there and they read what needs to happen,” said Belfry. “Like that goal he scored against San Jose, normally you wouldn’t shoot that puck necessarily in front of the goalie to get to the post but the goalie flattens out right on the goal line because he’s worried about the short side. 

“[Hughes] reads that the goalie is flattened out and is straight across the goal line, opening up the opportunity to go cross body and go off the post and in. My goal is to put the athlete in a place where they can become more special and that goal is a great example of that. He does everything right to get the situation that he wants. Once he’s there, he reads the situation, reads where the goalie is, and then he creates a special shot for the situation.”

When I asked Hughes after the game about this specific goal, his response showed both his confidence and the mental process that leads to that opportunity.

“I know going into the game that I’m gonna get one of those looks,” said Hughes. “I’m just thinking about where I’m gonna put that and then obviously it’s mainly looking at the goalie and seeing it’s open. But I think it’s getting my mind ready and knowing that I’m gonna get a chance like that and what am I going to do with it.”

That’s the change in mindset that has led to a goalscoring outburst for Hughes this season. He’s not just looking to take opportunities as they come but knows for a fact that he will get a scoring opportunity like that every game and is already thinking about how he will score in that moment.

Hughes' goalscoring mindset opens up opportunities for his teammates

Another key element of this attacking mindset is that it opens up other opportunities. Hughes might not continue to score at the same clip — his 12.3% shooting percentage is more than double his career average — but his willingness to use his shot as a primary option will create chances for his teammates.

“Because you’ve threatened so well and people believe you’re going to shoot it, now all these other plays become available: backdoor tap-ins become available, passes across seam all of a sudden become available,” said Belfry. “All of those things start to open up and you become a much more diverse offensive player. That’s why the pathway to 100 points is through those 15-20 goals because that’s what opens up. 

“For him, 20-30 more points is going to come from not only the goals he scores but because he’s threatening the net so much, he creates easier goal options for other people.”

What this all boils down to is that Quinn Hughes has become an absolute nightmare for other teams to defend. The last couple of seasons, Hughes was a top-tier offensive defenceman but his points were mostly coming through assists and it seemed like a team could potentially put together a gameplan to shut him down by taking away those passing lanes. 

Now what is an opposing team supposed to do?

“If you pressure him, he’s going to come out the other side and he’s going to put you in a bad spot,” said Belfry. “If you don’t pressure him, he’s going to put you in a bad spot. He’s at that level where everything you do is wrong, every decision that you make is the wrong decision.

“It’s an unbelievable place to be.”