After Quinn Hughes’ electric debut last week, fans are eager to see more. That’s particularly true when it comes to his performance in 3-on-3 overtime with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, where the extra time and space, as well as teammates that process the game in a similar way, has shown Hughes at his best.
Hughes’ performance with Pettersson and Boeser in overtime has fans equally eager to see that trio in another situation where there’s a little more time and space: the power play.
In his first two games in the NHL, Hughes has gotten a little time on the power play, but only a little. The Canucks only had one power play in his first game and Alex Edler scored five seconds into it, setting the franchise record in goals from a defenceman in the process.
In his second game, however, the Canucks had four power plays, for a total of 6:53 in game time. Edler played 5:59, while Hughes played just 54 seconds. His time on the power play was barely enough to whet the appetite and it came with the second unit, away from Pettersson and Boeser.
It’s fair to say that some fans were disappointed. Just like fans were eager to see what Pettersson would add to the first power play unit, they were excited to see how Hughes would fit in. Instead, the Canucks have stuck with the same first unit. According to Canucks head coach Travis Green, you shouldn’t expect that to change in the last few games of the season.
“Our power play has taken a lot of heat this year,” said Green. “It’s been a lot better as of late and Alex Edler has been a big part of our power play.”
“I think if you were to go to Quinn and ask him, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you in Alex Edler’s spot,’ he’d probably feel a little bit uncomfortable with that as well,” Green added. “There’s going to come a day where I hope he runs the power play, he’s a big part of our future, and I’m as excited as a lot of our fans. And I said it before he got here, that it’s my job to watch how high expectations are for Quinn and I think we’ve done right by him so far in two games and we’ll see how it goes.”
Green made it clear that there are two things at play: getting Hughes comfortable in the NHL and respecting Edler, the elder statesman of the team. He wouldn’t dismiss the idea of playing Hughes on the first unit out of hand, but it didn’t sound like it would happen anytime soon.
“I’m not going to say I’m not going to put him on the ice ever with the first power play unit,” said Green, “but I’m not just gonna say, ‘Quinn Hughes is here and Alex, you’re off the top power play unit, here you go, Quinn,’ because you know what, he’d probably feel uncomfortable with that as well too.
"Inside the locker room there’s those dynamics that happen and he’s still only played two games in the NHL, and hasn’t really played the power play yet in the NHL, so we’re trying to practice it as much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about Quinn and his future and him being a power play guy, but I think we just need to put the brakes on this a little bit and let him get accustomed to playing in the NHL.”
Those are fair points from Green, but there are other arguments in favour of trying Hughes out on the first unit.
One is that these games are essentially meaningless. The Canucks have long been eliminated from the playoffs and these final games are often seen as an opportunity for young players to prove themselves and teams to experiment to see what might work in the future.
With Hughes expected to be a power play quarterback in the future, it seems worthwhile to give him an opportunity on the ice with the first unit to get a little bit of experience heading into his off-season training. He could see how a first unit is run and how Pettersson, Boeser, and the rest of the unit plays. It would also be a chance for the coaching staff to see what different dynamic Hughes could bring to that top unit.
There’s also an argument to be made that Hughes would make the power play better right now.
When it comes to the power play, few teams in the NHL have done less with more than the Vancouver Canucks. They’re ninth in the NHL in power play opportunities, but 22nd in the NHL in power play goals. Their power play percentage, at 16.0%, is 27th in the NHL.
It’s frustrating when you look at the talent they have available to them. Pettersson has a bomb of a one-timer, a wicked wrist shot and snap shot, and is a great playmaker. Boeser is a legitimate sniper that rescued the power play last season. Bo Horvat is relentless down low and a savvy playmaker in his own right. Along with the big three, the Canucks have had other complementary forwards fill in on the top unit, like Sven Baertschi, Nikolay Goldobin, and Josh Leivo.
Meanwhile, at the point, is the ever-steady Alex Edler.
Edler has been a staple of the power play in Vancouver for over a decade and has been underappreciated in the role. In fact, the Canucks’ biggest struggles with the man advantage this season came while Edler was injured. Truly, fans probably don’t appreciate Edler’s work on the power play enough, disparaging every drop pass and shot that happens to get blocked.
While Edler’s work on the power play is underappreciated, it’s also very familiar. It’s a known quantity. The coaching staff know exactly what Edler brings; the unknown is what Hughes might bring to the table. That’s something fans want to see, but it seems like something the coaching staff might want to see as well.
Hughes is a dynamic defenceman lauded for his ability to quarterback a power play with his vision and creativity, as well as his ability to get the power play set up in the first place by using his skating to get through the neutral zone and enter the offensive zone. In Hughes, it’s easy to see shades of when the Canucks’ power play was at its most successful — in 2010-11, when Christian Ehrhoff brought a welcome injection of chaos with his aggressive reads and jumping up in the play. It’s no wonder fans are excited.
Perhaps that excitement, however, comes with expectations that are a little too high, and that’s what Green wants to avoid.
“This guy hasn’t even been to an NHL training camp,” said Green. “He’s coming out of college hockey, he’s 19 years old, and he’s just getting his feet wet in the NHL...I’m as excited as everyone else, but it’s also my job to bring Quinn along the right way.”
That means keeping expectations in check for the 19-year-old defenceman, giving him adequate practice time to learn the system, and parceling out his ice time in manageable amounts.
“It’s my job to make sure we do right by Quinn,” he added, “and do right by the rest of the guys, and I know everyone thinks you just come into a locker room, and maybe some people think he should just go right on the first power play unit...and Alex Edler should just sit and watch. He’s already taken Ben Hutton’s and Troy Stecher’s spot on the power play.”
There’s a difference, of course, between trying Hughes out on the first unit and Hughes stealing Edler’s job. The latter certainly won’t happen in the space of a few games to end the season, but the former seems worth a try.
At the very least, the Canucks could try to get the second unit on the ice a bit more often. There were a couple occasions on Saturday when the first unit had an opportunity to change halfway through a power play and chose to instead stay on the ice. We’ll see if that pattern repeats in these last few games.