In the first game of his rookie season — on his first shift, no less — Quinn Hughes was matched up against Connor McDavid. Hughes played over 23 minutes in the season opener against the Oilers; nearly 11 minutes of that time was spent hard-matched against McDavid at even-strength, more than any other Canuck.
It was immediately apparent that there would be no sheltering Hughes. He didn’t want to be sheltered and, more importantly, he didn’t need to be sheltered.
Not every NHL head coach would throw a young defenceman to the wolves like that, but Travis Green gave Hughes the opportunity to prove he could handle it. Hughes didn’t just handle it and hold his own in difficult minutes, he excelled.
The transition between NCAA and NHL hockey can be a difficult one at times, as players get used to the speed, skill, and physicality of the game, not to mention the more gruelling schedule. Hughes handled that transition the same way he handles transitioning the puck up ice for the Canucks: he made it look easy.
“It’s the hardest league in the world, so obviously you’re going to go through things and it’s a long year,” said Hughes. “I played 68 games, you’re obviously going to have good nights and bad nights.”
While Hughes acknowledged it wasn’t always as easy as he made it look, he also had a theory for why he adjusted so quickly to the speed of the NHL game.
“I was probably overprepared,” he said. “I almost left after my first year of college and decided to come back for one more year, so I think that I was probably overripe.”
“Overripe” is a wonderful image from Hughes, leading to visuals of a too-soft peach or brown banana after being left out on the counter for too long. In the case of Hughes, he could have made the jump to the NHL a lot sooner and handled himself fine, but the extra year in college made it a lot easier.
An overripe banana might not be the most appetizing to eat on its own, but it’s wonderful in banana bread. To torture a metaphor, Hughes’ rookie season was a delicious loaf of banana bread and Canucks fans ate it up all year long.
So did the members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, who vote for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Hughes led all rookies in scoring as a defenceman, making him a lock to be one of the three finalists for the award, along with fellow defenceman Cale Makar and forward Dominik Kubalik, who led all rookies in goals with 30.
Will Hughes win to give the Canucks back-to-back Calder Trophy winners with Elias Pettersson? We’ll find out on Monday, when the NHL will broadcast a half-hour awards show from the quarantine bubble in Edmonton.
The show will air on Sportsnet at 3:30 pm PST on September 21st. Kenny Albert and Scott Oake will host, with Edmonton Oilers greats presenting the five remaining awards that have yet to be announced: the Calder, Hart Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award, Vezina Trophy, and Norris Trophy. Wayne Gretzky, who famously said that Hughes has “better hands than I had” at the NHL All-Star Game this year, will present the Calder.
Even though Hughes led all rookies in scoring, making it look easy all the while, he still might finish second to Makar in the Calder voting. In the mid-season awards voting from the PHWA, Makar finished well ahead of Hughes with 101 first-place votes out of 117 ballots.
Since then, however, Hughes overtook Makar for the scoring lead and plays more and tougher minutes. In the underlying statistics, Hughes is clearly better than Makar. The question is how many members of the PHWA will be influenced by advanced statistics compared to Makar’s higher points-per-game and impactful play for the Colorado Avalanche.
Whatever the results of the Calder voting, there’s no disputing how impressive Hughes’ season was. He didn’t just credit his season to being “overripe,” but pointed out that he has some other impressive young players he could lean on.
“It helps when you have a good team and when you have guys like Petey and Boes that have gone through what I was going through,” said Hughes.
Both Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser can relate to Hughes in different ways. Like Hughes, Pettersson spent an extra year in another league when he likely could have made the jump to the NHL. That extra year in the SHL helped prepare him for a Calder-winning season. Meanwhile, Boeser made a smooth transition from the NCAA to the NHL, providing a blueprint for Hughes to follow.
There were rumours last season that the Canucks were trying to get Hughes to sign in the NHL at the 2019 World Junior Championships, which were held in Vancouver and Victoria. Instead, Hughes decided to return to college, not wanting to leave his University of Michigan teammates midseason.
It all seemed to work out for the best. Waiting that extra year meant Hughes could hit the ground running — “I think that helped me,” he said — and the limited number of games Hughes played at the end of the 2018-19 season helped the Canucks as well. If he had signed after the World Juniors, Hughes would have been eligible for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, forcing the Canucks to protect him. Now, the Canucks can protect another player instead.