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Predators are trying to neutralize Hughes by letting him have the puck

How do you stop an elite talent like Quinn Hughes? The Nashville Predators seem to think it's to let him have time and space with the puck.
Quinn Hughes is the key to the Vancouver Canucks and the Nashville Predators are taking an interesting tack to defend against him.

If you can stop Quinn Hughes, you can stop the Vancouver Canucks.

It’s not quite that simple, of course, but there’s no denying that Hughes is the engine that propels the Canucks. As much as Thatcher Demko’s injury or Elias Pettersson’s struggles affect the Canucks’ chances in the playoffs, how Hughes performs is going to determine how far they’ll go.

The Nashville Predators seem well aware of this fact but they’re taking an interesting approach to containing the Canucks’ captain — one that was very effective in Game 2.

Quinn Hughes loves having the puck; what if we just let him have it?

The typical way that teams try to neutralize star players is by taking away their time and space. This is particularly true in the playoffs, where teams look to close the gap as quickly as possible when they get the puck, giving star players no room to maneuver while playing the body as much as possible.

The Predators are doing the opposite with Quinn Hughes. They’re giving him plenty of time and space with the puck — at least when the Canucks are in the offensive zone.

When Hughes has the puck at the point, the Predators seem to be sagging off of him more than any teams did during the regular season. Honestly, they seem to be giving more space to all of the Canucks’ defencemen at the point but it has been particularly noticeable for Hughes. They seem to be showing little to no urgency in closing the gap on Hughes.

It seems counter-intuitive because Hughes loves to have the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. But instead of closing quickly on Hughes at the point, the Predators are closing out the lanes he loves to use the most.

There were multiple examples from Game 2, but this clip of Anthony Beauvillier is one of the more interesting ones. 

As Filip Hronek passes the puck to Hughes across the top of the zone, Beauvillier races across but he’s not really trying to close the gap between himself and Hughes. Instead, he rushes to take away the boards, preventing Hughes from activating up the left side. 

Beauvillier makes no attempt at winning the puck away from Hughes; all he’s aiming to do is take away his most dangerous option and force him to stay at the top of the zone. 

It’s something we saw repeatedly in Game 2 — the Predators gave Hughes and the Canucks’ other defencemen the top of the zone and focused on taking away lanes rather than taking away time and space. They rarely attempted to pressure Hughes at the point to try to create a turnover.

Quinn Hughes wants pressure at the point

It’s a tactic that plays against how Hughes has created offence for the Canucks this season. He has welcomed pressure at the point and used it to create advantageous situations for him and his teammates to score goals.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin had the same mentality: they wanted opposing players to close the gap between them because that left space behind those players they could exploit. The Sedins exploited that space with their passing; Hughes exploits it with his skating. 

Hughes has tremendous trust in his puckhandling and skating to evade pressure. When an opposing forward closes the gap, Hughes looks for the moment when their skates turn to follow him along the blue line, then cuts back to attack their heels, taking advantage of the space left in their wake. It’s an element of his game that he worked at developing and improving all summer.  

By bursting past his check at the point, Hughes creates an imbalance for the defending team. They have to send another player out to challenge Hughes as he attacks down the wing, which opens up a teammate for a pass or to collect a rebound off a shot. 

This tactic is a big reason why Hughes was able to go from 7 goals and 76 points last season to 17 goals and 92 points this season. It opened up so many more opportunities for him to score goals rather than just tally assists. Understandably, the Predators want to take this tactic away from Hughes.

The one time in Game 2 that the Predators were aggressive at the point on Hughes, they illustrated exactly why they’ve avoided doing so. 

First, Jason Zucker closed on Hughes looking for a chance to poke the puck out into the neutral zone, then Kiefer Sherwood and Zucker both tried to pinch him at the point.

Hughes escaped both times and held the blue line brilliantly, then immediately looked to turn those escapes into offensive opportunities. Neither one resulted in a goal but each time it opened up space on the ice for his teammates, ending with an open tip in the slot for J.T. Miller that he couldn’t quite redirect past Juuse Saros.

This is what the Predators want to avoid. They can live with Hughes holding onto the puck all day at the top of the zone. What they want to avoid is him beating his check. To do that, they're generally keeping his check as far away from him as possible. 

Letting Quinn Hughes have time and space could backfire for Predators

Let’s be clear: giving Hughes more time and space with the puck is an awfully risky strategy. As much as the Predators collapsing to the middle and giving up the points to the Canucks worked in Game 2, Hughes is an elite talent who will find some way to take advantage of the Predators letting him have the puck.

But it’s a calculated risk. Yes, the Predators will occasionally give up a goal like the one Pius Suter tipped in from a Hughes point shot in Game 1. But point shots are typically less likely to result in a goal than if Hughes was able to jump up to shoot from the left faceoff circle. The point shot is also easier for the Predators to block.

After Game 2, Rick Tocchet said that there was a specific counter to the Predators’ giving space at the point and taking away the shooting lanes but that the Canucks didn’t execute on that play.

“I said it ten times there in the third — it’s there, the play that I want, but for whatever reason we’re not seeing it right away,” said Tocchet. “But it’s there. We’re getting some opportunities but there’s a couple of things that we can do when teams front and I think we’ve got to work it out in practice and show these guys again that you’ve got to trust it.”

As the series heads to Nashville for Game 3, it will be up to Hughes and the Canucks to find and execute the plays to break down the Predators’ defence.