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Maybe Quinn Hughes did break the Canucks’ rookie record for defenceman scoring after all

A pandemic robbed Quinn Hughes of a franchise record in his rookie season but there's a chance he got it anyway.
Quinn Hughes had one of the best rookie seasons by an NHL defenceman of all time but couldn't beat Dale Tallon's franchise record — or maybe he did? photo: Dan Toulgoet/Glacier Media

Quinn Hughes had some incredible accomplishments in his rookie season with the Vancouver Canucks. He became the first defenceman in 27 years to put up 50 points in his rookie season and led all rookies in scoring.

What’s frustrating is that he could have done even more. 

One of the best rookie seasons by a defenceman of all time

The COVID-19 pandemic derailed a lot of things in 2020, including the NHL season. When the NHL suspended the season on March 12, 2020, Hughes had 53 points in 68 games, the 14th-best season all-time by a rookie defenceman. 

Hughes was on-pace, with 13 games unplayed, for 63 points, which would have moved him into 7th all-time in scoring by a rookie defenceman, one point behind Chris Chelios. It’s worth noting that Hughes was on a hot streak when the season was suspended, with 19 points in 20 games since the All-Star Break — who knows how many points he could have scored?  

He almost certainly would have broken the oldest standing franchise record for the Canucks — Dale Tallon’s 56 points as a rookie defenceman in the 1970-71 season.

Except, maybe he did?

Dale Tallon didn't just play defence

Here’s something that sometimes gets forgotten about Dale Tallon: he didn’t exclusively play defence in his NHL career. After he was traded by the Canucks in 1973, Tallon primarily played at centre for the Chicago Blackhawks, but even before that he was shuffled between defence and forward by the Canucks.

In fact, when Tallon was drafted, he was seen as both a centre and a defenceman, as he had played both positions in junior with the Toronto Marlboros. When Tallon showed up in Vancouver at training camp, head coach Hal Laycoe put him at centre, even though Tallon himself insisted that he preferred to play defence.

When centre wasn’t working early in the preseason, Laycoe bumped Tallon to left wing instead. By the time the regular season started, however, Laycoe and the Canucks had seemingly resigned themselves to Tallon playing defence. 

Playing Tallon on defence worked out pretty well, at least offensively. Just two defencemen had more points than Tallon in the 1970-71 season — the great J.C. Tremblay and the legend himself, Bobby Orr. Defensively, Tallon had his struggles but that was true of the entire Canucks team.

But did Tallon play the entire season on defence? And, if he didn’t, how many points did Tallon score while playing forward?

"I was just trying to get the most I could out of him."

It’s hard to say for certain how much forward Tallon played in the 1970-71 season — there was no Twitter at the time with beat reporters recording lines and defence pairings for every game and newspaper articles rarely reported the lines. 

It wouldn’t work to go game-by-game and look at the boxscores either, as multiple players were moved from forward to defence that season. Poul Popeil, for instance, came to Canucks’ camp as a defenceman but played most of the season at left wing, though he was dropped back to defence multiple times. Additionally, the Canucks sometimes dressed as few as 18 skaters and sometimes dressed only five defencemen.

We do know, however, that Tallon was moved to forward at least a few times. Newspaper records indicate he filled in for a shift or two at forward when another player got injured, for instance, but there were also games where he played a more significant amount of time at forward.

There was a game on December 1, 1970, when the Canucks were facing the Philadelphia Flyers when head coach Hal Laycoe moved Tallon “first from defence to centre and then to left wing on the Andre Boudrias line,” according to The Province’s Tom Watt.

“I was just trying to get the most I could out of him,” said Laycoe. “You might say it’s the most educational night Dale has had.”

While there’s every indication that Tallon played most of that game at forward, he didn’t record a point in the Canucks’ 5-4 win over the Flyers. So, that doesn’t take away from Tallon’s 56 points as a rookie defenceman.

Playing left wing against the Sabres

I was able to find record of another game, however, where Tallon played the entire time at forward. Ahead of the Canucks’ January 31, 1971 game against their expansion cousins, the Buffalo Sabres, Laycoe moved Tallon to left wing.

“Sunday, he’ll patrol the left side of another new line,” reported Bob Dunn in The Vancouver Sun on January 30. “Ray Cullen will be at centre and Eddie Hatoum on right wing.”

Veteran defenceman Howie Young, called up from the Phoenix Roadrunners, took Tallon’s place on defence, skating with rookie Barry Wilkins. The team didn’t like how Tallon was playing defensively, especially alongside another inexperienced player like Wilkins.

The game was a disaster. The Canucks had won their first two meetings against the Sabres with some authority, trouncing them 7-2 in Vancouver on October 27 and 4-1 in Buffalo on November 5. Since then, however, the Sabres had vastly improved and were storming up the standings.

In that January 31 game, Sabres star Gilbert Perreault, who could have been a Canuck if not for the spin of a wheel, and former member of the WHL Canucks, Paul Andrea, both scored two goals en route to a 6-1 win. 

Young and Wilkins were on the ice for three of those Sabres goals and Young, who had a reputation for a lack of discipline, took three minor penalties. That was Young’s last game with the Canucks and the last of his NHL career and Tallon was moved back to defence the next game.

Just to confirm Tallon did actually play against the Sabres at left wing, in the February 2, 1971 edition of The Province, Tom Watts reported, “Dale Tallon, on left wing for the Buffalo game, will revert to defence.”

“Hal said he wanted Tallon back on defence and I’ll accede to his wishes only if he doesn’t play with Wilkins,” said Canucks’ general manager Bud Poile. “Those two have to be split up.”

But in that one game at left wing, Tallon did tally a point — he had the primary assist on the Canucks’ only goal of the game.

So, at least one of Tallon’s 56 points came in a game where Tallon played at forward. That is, at the very least, a proof of concept. We don't know how often Tallon played at forward in his rookie year but we know that he played at least one full game at left wing and tallied one point.

Were any of his other points scored while he played forward, whether just for a shift or for larger portions of the game? That's harder to say for certain but it’s possible.

But maybe it doesn't matter 

Here’s the other question — should it matter that Tallon played at forward at times in his rookie year? 

Brent Burns led all defencemen in points in the 2018-19 season, with 83 points in 82 games. He was named a First-Team All-Star on defence and finished second in Norris voting to Mark Giordano, despite the fact that he played part of that season at right wing. 

Should we go game-by-game with Burns as well and sort out how many points he scored at right wing and subtract them from his total?

With Tallon, we’re left with nothing more than an interesting hypothetical — if just four of his points in his rookie season were scored as a forward, does that make Quinn Hughes the Canucks’ record holder for most points as a rookie defenceman?

Unless we can track down game-by-game and shift-by-shift what position Tallon played, the question is moot, but it’s still an interesting question to consider.