Quinn Hughes realized something at the All-Star break: he could be even better in the second half of the season.
“After that, I thought I could really step it up more,” said Hughes after Canucks practice on Friday. “I was happy with the first half, obviously — really happy — But... there was a lot of times I would get a Grade-A [scoring chance] and I wouldn't score. They just weren't coming.”
Since the All-Star break, however, the points have definitely been coming for Hughes. His 13 points in 11 games since the All-Star break leads all defencemen — not just rookie defencemen, but all NHL defencemen.
In fact, just 10 forwards have more points than Hughes since the All-Star break. Somehow, at a time when many other rookies hit a wall and struggle to maintain their early season performance, Hughes just keeps getting better.
Hughes has been able to maintain a two-point lead in the rookie scoring race over fellow defenceman Cale Makar and is on a 65-point pace for the season, which would smash the Canucks’ franchise record for most points by a rookie defenceman. That record has been held by Dale Tallon since the Canucks’ inaugural season, when Tallon put up 56 points.
He has a chance, in fact, to break the overall rookie record for Canucks scoring, which Elias Pettersson set last season with 66 points. For a 20-year-old defenceman to be this productive is astounding.
More than the points, however, is the fact that Hughes leads all rookies in ice time, averaging 21:46 per game. That’s second only to Alex Edler on the Canucks and it’s actually slightly misleading, as Hughes has been racking up minutes in recent games. His ice time is only growing at a time in the season when fatigue has a tendency to set in.
“I've been taking care of my body, getting good sleep and eating well and hydrating and stuff. I think those things help,” said Hughes. “I prepared myself this summer for it.”
His coach credits his preparedness for how easily he’s handled the heavy ice time, but notes that one element of his game has helped significantly.
“He’s a gifted skater,” said Travis Green. “And when I say that, I mean I think he skates a little bit like a lot of us wish we could, where he doesn't get overly tired. That's probably helped him to stay fresh.
“I think he's been able from an early age to watch a lot of NHL, been around it a little bit with his family, understands that it is going to be longer and harder. And then you just go through it and do it… He loves the game, this kid, and wants to do well, so away from the rink, I'm sure he's taking good care of himself, so he's ready.”
Hughes also spoke about the work he’s been able to do with Bryan Marshal, the Canucks’ director of applied sport science, and Roger Takahashi, the director of strength and conditioning, along with their team. He also took some issue with the idea that the NCAA season is any easier than the NHL season, noting the tough practice schedule and the back-to-back games in college hockey.
The Canucks are spotting Hughes some rest when they can. The only two games in February where Hughes hasn’t played at least 21 minutes were their recent games against the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks, where they won by four and three goals, respectively.
In those two games, Hughes played under 19 minutes, with the Canucks seeming to limit his minutes as soon as they took a solid lead. In tight games or when the Canucks are trying to mount a comeback, however, Hughes has seen his ice time skyrocket.
In the overtime game against the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday, Hughes played over 27 minutes. He barely left the ice in overtime, playing just short of three of the five minutes.
More telling might be the previous game against the Anaheim Ducks, where Hughes nearly played that much without overtime. He had a total of 26:56 in ice time, racking up shifts after the Ducks took an early lead in the first period.
Again, Hughes is just 20 years old. He’s racking up points and playing massive minutes, and doing it with a casual air about his game that makes you believe he could play just one 60-minute shift per game and be just fine.
Of course, he’s still a rookie prone to the occasional rookie mistake, even if they’re not as readily evident for Hughes as they are for some players.
“I think he's had some nights where he hasn't been at his best,” said Green. “You don't always notice it from the outside. Just little subtle mental mistakes here and there, which he owns if he makes a mistake and he's learned from it.”
Perhaps that’s the key for why Hughes just keeps getting better: he doesn’t hesitate to own up to the mistakes he’s made, learns from them, and then moves on. Hughes believes that Green’s willingness to let him make those mistakes and learn as he goes has been a big part of his success this season.
“He's talked a lot about wanting me to figure it out on my own at the start and he was gonna teach me as we go and he's definitely done that,” said Hughes. “I think his confidence in me and faith and having my back has allowed me to have that confidence and be able to play my game.
“You'd be surprised, you see a lot of young guys that come in that don't have that confidence [from their coach], it's nice to have.”