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Should the Canucks draft Luke Hughes?

Quinn's little brother is bigger, stronger, and nearly as good a skater.
Luke Hughes nhl
Luke Hughes, the brother of Quinn and Jack, is one of the top defenceman prospects in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.

For nearly two decades, the Vancouver Canucks had an incredible pair of brothers — twins that led the team to back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and one game away from the Stanley Cup. 

Daniel and Henrik Sedin provided Canucks fans with something utterly unique. There is a chance, however, that the Canucks could come close to that experience again. Instead of two brothers leading the Canucks at forward, they could potentially have two brothers leading them from the blue line.

Quinn Hughes already looks like he could become the best defenceman in franchise history. His younger brother, Jack Hughes, was taken first overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, but he’s a forward, so forget him. The player to focus on is Quinn’s youngest brother — Luke Hughes, who is expected to be picked early in the first round in this year’s draft.

Luke, like Quinn, is a defenceman and could potentially join his brother on the Canucks’ blue line.

That may seem unlikely. After all, Hughes is in the top five in most draft rankings, with the well-respected International Scouting Services ranking him second overall behind only Owen Power. And yet, there’s a chance Hughes slides to ninth where the Canucks are picking. Both Elite Prospects and Hockey Prospect, two independent scouting services, have Hughes at 11th overall, breaking with consensus. 

Then there’s TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who released his final draft rankings this week, with Hughes at eighth overall. Since he forms his rankings based on surveys of NHL scouts, they often end up a more accurate reflection of the eventual draft order than other rankings.

If the draft follows closer to McKenzie’s rankings, then all it would take is one team preferring a forward like Kent Johnson or grabbing goaltender Jesper Wallstedt ahead of the Canucks in order for Hughes to fall to ninth. 

If that happens, should the Canucks draft Luke Hughes? Or are Elite Prospects and Hockey Prospect on to something when they rank him 11th and there will be a better player available? Let’s take a closer look.

Luke Hughes by the numbers

A key number for Hughes that is worth keeping in mind throughout the rest of this profile is 17. That’s Hughes’ age until September 9, less than a week before the age cutoff for the draft. If he was a week older, he would be in the 2022 draft, not the 2021 draft.

That makes Hughes the youngest of the top players eligible for this draft. Compare him to Owen Power, who is expected to be the first overall pick — Power turned 18 last November, so Hughes is 10 months younger than Power.

At that age, that age gap can make a major difference. It means Power has an extra 10 months of development, strength and conditioning, and maturity on Hughes. It also means Hughes has an extra 10 months of runway ahead of him — if he’s as good as he is when he’s still just 17, how much better could he get?

Hughes is already quite good. He had 34 points in 38 games with the US National Team Development Program and his 0.89 points per game lead all defencemen in the program. It’s also the fourth-best points-per-game by a first-time draft-eligible defenceman in the USDP ever and is comparable to Adam Fox’s 0.92 points per game in his draft year and Fox notably just won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman.

Unlike his older brother, Hughes has size on his side too. He’s 6’2”, even if he’s slightly built at 176 lbs. Remember, he’s just 17 and has time to add heft to his frame, particularly since he’ll be heading to the University of Michigan next season and will have time to hit the gym.

Hughes is well aware how his size sets him apart from his brothers. When asked about the difference between him and Quinn, Hughes didn’t mince words.

“One area where we are pretty different is that I'm 6'2" and I can kill penalties,” he said.

Cold.

A smooth operator in transition

One area where Hughes is similar to Quinn, however, is that he’s an excellent skater. He’s dynamic with his feet, dashing up the ice with speed and agility. He’s constantly changing directions to mislead opposing defenders and open up space on the rush.

“There just aren’t many holes to poke in his mechanical skating form,” reads his Elite Prospects profile. “Hughes starts with the perfect skating posture, settling comfortably into his stride as he darts around the ice. There’s great flexibility in his hips, knees, and ankles, and he never has any trouble achieving the appropriate depth through his stride.”

That smooth skating combines with slick hands to make him a one-man breakout machine, racing away from forecheckers and slaloming through the neutral zone to gain the opposition blue line. It’s the skill that is most reminiscent of his older brother and it leads to rushes that will be very familiar to Canucks fans.

“His offensive transition game is basically unparalleled in my dataset,” said prospect analyst Will Scouch. “How does he generate these results? Well, there’s skill, a really aggressive mindset when it comes to pushing pucks up the ice with control, and he’s got great reach on his frame that allows him to pull pucks around defenders, keep opponents guessing, and manipulate defences.”

Every time Hughes picks up the puck in his own end of the ice, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice, because he’s likely about to do something fun and exciting.

“He can be very hard to predict with his skill and evasiveness on his edges,” said Scouch. “He’s willing to take very creative routes through the neutral zone to keep opponents guessing.”

Let’s be clear, however; Luke is not Quinn. He doesn’t quite possess the same shiftiness and guile as Quinn and as good as he is in transition, he can sometimes skate himself into trouble by missing obvious passing plays or better routes. At times, it seems like he skates faster than he thinks.

The clip below shows both the good and bad of his skating in transition. He retrieves the puck and quickly shakes free from an opponent, then uses a quick cut inside to evade pressure and giant he offensive zone. Once there, however, he has multiple chances to make a simple pass to a forward but instead keeps going himself, eventually ending up in the corner and losing the puck.

View post on imgur.com

Still, the good absolutely outweighs the bad in this area of his game.

Evasive in the offensive zone

Once his team has possession in the offensive zone, Hughes’ skating is a major boon. He can skate along the blue line to keep the puck in, races around the outside to befuddle defensive systems, and can make a quick shift around defenders to create open space where none existed a moment earlier.

“When it comes to using his skill to evade pressure, find open passing lanes, or create new rushing lanes, Luke Hughes to me is one of the more exciting defenders available in this year’s draft,” said Scouch.

There’s a reason why Hughes is seen as the best offensive defenceman in the draft. He attacks with speed in transition, then can create something out of nothing in the offensive zone, even at even strength.

“We’ve seen some nice flashes of high-end, projectable skill from Hughes,” said Elite Prospects. “He joins the second wave of the rush whenever there’s an opportunity, enthusiastically activates off of the blue line, and works magic with the puck on his stick in the small area game. He distributes well enough too, even if he’s not exceptionally deceptive or manipulative as a playmaker.”

That combination of walking the line and distributing the puck also makes him an effective power play quarterback, even if he lacks the shot that you would typically like to see on the power play. Elite Prospects describes his shot as “comfortably below NHL average” and it’s an assessment echoed by other scouting reports.

Still, he can definitely pass the puck and there’s the potential for a legitimately high-end offensive game from Hughes in the NHL. His hockey sense is a little raw, however, and he’ll sometimes choose a riskier pass than necessary. That's particularly true in his own end of the ice, leading to too many turnovers.

One NHL scout quoted by Hockey Prospect called him a “turnover machine.”

“We’ve also seen him make too many blind passes, where he attempts to whip the puck along the boards to alleviate pressure below the goal-line,” said Hockey Prospect in their profile of Hughes. “Unfortunately, for these plays to have success, the defender needs to time when he should keep his head on a swivel and check his coverage, but Hughes instinctively doesn’t time when he should survey the ice under pressure as well as we would like.”

Speaking of his own end of the ice, let’s turn to Hughes’ defensive game, which is where things get dicey.

Undeveloped defensive game

Defensively, Hughes is a bit of a mixed bag. Elements of his defensive game are solid — other elements are nearly non-existent.

“We’re far more concerned with what happens in the defensive zone when Hughes is on the ice than what happens when his team is on the attack,” said Elite Prospects.

When defending against the rush, Hughes has the ability to use his skating to close gaps quickly, then use his reach to divest an opponent of the puck. When it works, it seems almost effortless, as you can see in this clip below, where he’s playing on the right side despite being a left-hand shot. He knocks the puck free, then immediately looks to turn the puck up ice with control.

View post on imgur.com

“Luke Hughes has the mobility, confidence, and aggression to step into play and block transitions defensively,” said Scouch. “I felt that challenging with his stick was a very high-end trait, he was a very good separator of pucks when it came to simple stick checks and applying pressure on opponents to free up loose pucks and turn play around.”

He is also very engaged in board battles and works hard to come away with the puck. While he will have an easier time leveraging his size as he adds weight and strength, he already has the work rate to win in those situations. 

“His man-to-man coverage is consistent and he can overwhelm players along the boards at times due to his sheer determination,” said Hockey Prospect.

Those are the strengths of Hughes’ defensive game, but he has just as many weaknesses. If he doesn’t stop a rush with his skating and stick, he can sometimes end up lost and give up a dangerous chance on the rush.

“Where things go really wrong for Luke Hughes is whenever his first layer of stick checking kind of falls apart,” said Scouch. “If his first stick check fails, he can rely too much on his reach and stop moving his feet...There just seemed to be a focus too much on one layer of defence and not doing enough afterwards to maintain that defensive pressure. He would just kind of let the play happen.”

That’s an assessment echoed by Elite Prospects, who identify weaknesses in problem solving in “complex defensive situations.” At the same time, they praised his improvement in defending the rush over the course of the season.

That’s where it’s important to remember that he’s still so young. There’s a lot of room for improvement in his defensive reads, positioning, and problem-solving, but he also has a bit more time to take steps forward in that area than the other top defencemen in this draft.

Who is Hughes and what can he become?

Hughes could be a top-pairing defenceman that completely controls a game from the back end. He could also be an infuriating defenceman that gives up way too much defensively and constantly turns over the puck in the defensive zone. There’s a certain high-risk, high-reward element here.

The question for Hughes is whether he can develop his defensive game and his decision-making with the puck. It’s not about the skill — he can skate and pass just fine — but about the choices he makes. He needs to pick his spots to make a high-risk pass and recognize when a simpler, easier play is the better choice.

“I personally feel it’s more likely that we’re looking at a puck-rushing, offensive defenceman who has some defensive liabilities that you might just have to live with,” said Scouch.

There are flaws to his game, but again, he’s only 17. Some of those issues can be ironed out even over the next year as he plays in the NCAA and discovers what works and doesn’t work against the older, faster players in the college game.

There’s a chance that Hughes slides to 9th where the Canucks pick. If he does, he would absolutely make sense for the Canucks. He could be a second-pairing defenceman behind his brother and quarterback the second power play unit. With his ability to play on the right side, maybe he could even pair with Quinn at times, though he’s too much of a risk taker to regularly play with him.

The more important question for the Canucks is whether it would be worth trading up in the draft to get Hughes if he falls to 7th or 8th.

That’s where the “high risk” element of his game might prove too frightening to spend assets to move up the draft. If he was more of a “sure thing,” it would be far easier to justify, but that would also make it far less likely that he slides down in the draft.

There’s even an argument to be made that the Canuucks shouldn’t pick Hughes even if he does slide to ninth. There will be quality forwards available, such as Kent Johnson, Fyodor Svechkov, Fabian Lysell, and Cole Sillinger. Perhaps Mason McTavish or Dylan Guenther fall to the Canucks. Is Hughes a better prospect than all of those forwards? It’s tough to say.

If neither the New Jersey Devils nor the Canucks pick Luke Hughes to have him join one of his brothers, that might be the most shocking outcome on the first day of the draft.