“We’re not kids anymore.”
That was Vancouver Canucks captain Quinn Hughes making it clear that it’s time for this core group of Canucks to start winning some hockey games and making the playoffs. The team’s young core isn’t exactly young anymore.
“I’m going to be 24 in October, it’s not like I’m 19 coming in again,” said Hughes. “Petey’s gonna be 25, Millsy’s 30, Demmer’s 27 — we’re getting up there.”
Then he grinned and added, “Not up there, up there,” as he realized he had just called his teammates old.
“It’s time,” he said. “They drafted us to do things and we’ve got to do those things.”
Hughes put his money where his mouth was on the ice on Saturday night, putting the team on his back to win their first preseason game of the year. Things were looking grim after the first period, where an Edmonton Oilers team missing the majority of their star players out-shot the Canucks 14-to-5.
That’s when Hughes stepped up — quite literally, he stepped up in the play for a 2-on-1 to score the Canucks’ first goal. Then he stepped up in the zone to score another to give the Canucks the lead. Suddenly, the Canucks were firing on all cylinders and started piling up the goals, following the example of their captain.
“He just needed to become captain to start scoring,” said Elias Pettersson with a twinkle in his eye.
Hughes already has the franchise record for most points by a Canucks defenceman twice over — could he take aim at Adrian Aucoin’s franchise record of 23 goals by a defenceman? He certainly looks like he wants to activate more and become more of a scoring threat, specifically talking about working on getting his shot off more effectively in stride.
That ability came into play with how he activated from the point, pushing past the winger checking him. He did it with purpose, not just stepping up in the zone to create openings for his teammates but to get himself to more dangerous areas of the ice.
“I have always done it [activated] but I’m putting myself in a position where I don’t have to circle back,” said Hughes. “The last few seasons, I had the most puck possession for a defenceman in the league but where does that get you?”
There was a sense in Hughes’ answers that he’s come to a realization: he’s better than everyone else. It’s not an ego thing; it just feels like he’s figured out that he can do things on the ice that no one else can and it’s time that he used that ability to dominate.
“I’m just trying to use my gifts and things that I do to have that puck possession to put myself in a spot where I can create more,” said Hughes. “It’s more mental than anything.”
I watched Quinn Hughes' understand that this isn't even his final form when I watched this game.
- One of the interesting developments in the preseason has been the different look to the penalty kill — not just the personnel, but the system, where the Canucks are primarily using a diamond formation as opposed to the wedge+1 that they used most of last season and that is fairly standard around the league in response to the predominant umbrella power play.
- The benefits of the diamond are that it’s a fairly simple system and it makes it easier to put pressure on the puck, but it risks leaving the middle of the ice more open. Head coach Rick Tocchet specifically addressed that postgame when I asked him about the change to the PK.
- “The diamond intrigues me a little bit,” said Tocchet. “I think we’re a little bit more of a hybrid — we’re not actually a total diamond. It seems like a diamond but we don’t leave the middle open too much but we’ve got a lot more aggressiveness, which I like.”
- Cole McWard got the call to play with Hughes on the top pairing again and things did not go as planned for the rookie. He got caught flat-footed a couple of times and took three minor penalties to put the Canucks shorthanded. He didn’t play poorly, per se, but asking an unheralded 22-year-old to come straight out of college and play on an NHL top pairing might be asking too much.
- “I don’t know if he’s going to make the team or not, but there’s guys that have come out of college at 22 that have done well,” said Tocchet. “Maybe he can be that guy. It’s nice that he can sling that puck to Hughesy.”
- The other Cole — Ian Cole — was at fault on the Oilers’ opening goal. Cole had his man, Adam “Bert and” Erne, on the backcheck and took away his stick on the way to the net, but then he didn’t stay with him and skated right past the net. Erne was left all alone in front without even his rubber duckie and had all the time he needed to pick up the rebound, spin around, and tuck the puck past Thatcher Demko.
- The defence pairings changed multiple times in this game, with McWard taking a break away from Hughes at one point only to rejoin him in the third. The more intriguing change was Cole getting taken off of Filip Hronek’s pairing to be replaced by Carson Soucy. One of the biggest questions for the Canucks’ lineup remains who will play with Hughes and who will play with Hronek.
- Phil Di Giuseppe had himself one heck of a game. He had three points, with two assists and a goal, and was heavily involved in the cycle game all night with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser. The Italian Stallion keeps rewarding Tocchet for his trust in him. He may not be The Guy, but he’s at least A Guy and every hockey team needs some guys.
- “He’s a north-south, goes to the net, low-maintenance guy, big guy — how can you not love a guy like that?” said Tocchet. “He’s 29 years old, but I’ve seen a lot of guys start to play well at 29.”
- Di Giuseppe assisted on the Canucks’ first goal, taking a cross-ice pass from Brock Boeser for a 2-on-1 with Hughes. Like a contestant on Master Chef who insists on adding truffles to everything, his pass was a little more elevated than necessary, but Hughes got the shaft of his stick on it to knock it in.
- “It was a bad pass,” said Di Giuseppe with a laugh. “Thing is, if it was a good pass, I don’t think it would have went in.”
- The official play-by-play data lists Hughes’ goal with the shot type of “bat.” That’s a new shot type that has been added this season, along with “poke,” “cradle,” and “legs.” None of that is a joke, by the way. “Poke” is self-explanatory, but “cradle” presumably means a lacrosse-style goal, while “legs” means a between-the-legs shot.
- Hughes attacked aggressively to create the 2-1 goal, cutting across the zone to hoist the puck on net on the backhand. Di Giuseppe went hard to the net to create traffic and take away Stuart Skinner’s eyes — not in a serial killer way, thankfully — and Hughes’ backhand slipped through.
- Hughes was jumping up in the zone all game. “There's a couple of other options that [Hughes] has coming downhill that he worked on a lot this summer,” said Rick Tocchet. “I talked to him all summer about how he wanted to be able to fake and then get to a shooting position.”
- Andrei Kuzmenko extended the lead on a 5-on-3 power play in the third period. Hughes got in deep along the right boards and fed Kuzmenko in the slot and he had plenty of time to pick his spot over the left pad.
- “His shot’s dangerous,” said Tocchet of Kuzmenko when I asked if he might be a fit in the bumper in the absence of Bo Horvat. “He’s got that release where it doesn’t even have to be a perfect setup. He’s an elite talent when it comes to his shot, so why not have him in there? But sometimes he might be on the right side and we’ll have Millsy [in the bumper] — we’ve got to move people around.”
- The power play struck again to make it 4-1. The penalty kill gave Pettersson all the time in the world and he made them pay, rifling a shot over the shoulder of Skinner, a shot that is almost impossible to stop for a goaltender unless he doesn’t drop down into his butterfly.
- Di Giuseppe made it 5-1 by setting up shop in front of the net and deftly tipping an Ian Cole one-timer. His stick might have been ever-so-slightly above the crossbar when he deflected the puck but it’s the preseason and no one wants a video review in the preseason.
- “I used to think I was a shooter but I wasn’t scoring many goals,” said Di Giuseppe with a grin, saying he knows he has to go to the net, “because that’s where the goals are scored.”
- The Oilers got one back when Cole made a bad read and got caught up ice, leading to a 2-on-1. Raphael Lavoie put the puck top corner with a wicked shot to make 5-2 but that was as close as they would come.
- Things got feisty at the end of the game, as the Oilers seemed to be upset that the Canucks would dare to put their first power play unit on the ice late in a 5-2 game. If that’s what they were upset about, it’s preseason and the Canucks wanted to work on their power play. Chill out. It’s definitely not worth Vincent Desharnais crosschecking Anthony Beauvillier in the mouth.
- It should be noted that Brock Boeser quietly had a four-point night for the Canucks. All four points were assists, as he moved the puck smartly and efficiently, playing as more of a playmaker than a sniper.
- All in all, it was a good game for pretty much all of the Canucks, which is good, because they iced pretty much their entire opening night roster. Wasn’t a fan of how Cole played on the two goals against, which is a little concerning if he’s going to be on their shutdown defence pairing, but the penalty kill was good, the power play was good, and Thatcher Demko was good. That’s good.