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Quinn Hughes has officially made the Calder Trophy pursuit a two-horse race

The Canucks rookie rearguard has been breathing down Cale Makar's neck for the past couple months, but Hughes isn't surprised by his place in the rookie race. He had faith in his ability to be a top player and he's delivering.

First, a pop quiz: Who is the leading scorer among NHL defenseman since the all-star break? Would you believe Quinn Hughes? Not the leading scorer among rookie defenseman, among all of them. The 3 goals, 14 assists and 17 points in the 16 games Hughes has posted since he appeared in the All-Star Game in January is more than Roman Josi. More than John Carlson and Victor Hedman, too.

It’s abundantly clear that Hughes has served notice that the Calder Trophy race that was once thought to be a coronation for Cale Makar has become a two-horse race. Hughes has eclipsed Makar as the top-scoring rookie in the NHL, albeit with eight more games played than Makar. With 15 points in 13 games, it should come as no surprise that Hughes was named rookie of the month for February. And that, in and of itself, is pretty remarkable. Because unlike young players who come out of college hockey and hit a wall around this time of the season, Hughes is playing more minutes in more situations and having an increasing impact on Vancouver Canuck games. “I think he’s been mentally prepared for it, coming from a hockey family,” said Canucks coach Travis Green. “And when you can skate like that, you don’t get tired.”

If you’re wondering whether Hughes himself thinks he should be seriously considered for rookie-of-the-year honors, well, he certainly does. He acknowledges he’s making a pretty good case for himself. “Yeah, for sure I think so,” Hughes said. “I’m not the one making the call, but especially the last 30 games I don’t know if anyone has been better than me.”

The Canucks were mindful not to put elevated expectations on Hughes going into the season, even after he tantalized them with his brief stint in Vancouver at the end of the season after his sophomore season at the University of Michigan. But even if they had, he probably would have exceeded them anyway. He’s already the franchise leader in power-play points by a rookie despite the fact he didn’t start the season on the power play. “I didn’t want to start him there and then have to take him off,” said Canucks coach Travis Green. “We wanted to make sure he was ready and, man, was he ready. He’s just a joy to watch, a joy to coach and we’re lucky to have him.”

As the Canucks have watched their lead in the Pacific Division evaporate to the point where they’re now a wild-card team, Hughes has dropped to minus-9 on the season, largely because he’s been minus-2 in each of his past four games. But his work on the power play, particularly how he walks the blueline with the extra man, has been nothing short of outstanding. The defensive side of the game will come, and it is actually pretty decent now, in large part because of his skating ability.

“I’m not surprised at what he’s doing because I’ve been playing against him a lot in junior tournaments and international tournaments the past couple of years,” said Elias Pettersson, last year’s Calder winner. “He’s a great player. He flies on the ice and makes good passes and moves the puck well.”

Should Hughes manage to win the Calder this season, it would mark only the fifth time in NHL history that a team has had back-to-back Calder winners and the first time in more than 50 years when Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson of the Boston Bruins were the league’s best rookies. Visions of what Hughes and Pettersson could accomplish in the long-term future are indeed intriguing. Much of the reason the Canucks have accelerated their rebuilding plan is because of the impact Hughes has had on their fortunes. At this point, it’s almost unexplainable that Hughes played with the U.S. national junior team program and two years at Michigan and the Detroit Red Wings passed him over in favor of Filip Zadina, or that the Montreal Canadiens were so desperate to fill their void at center that they took Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall, four picks before Hughes.

“I haven’t surprised myself because I thought I would do really well,” Hughes said. “I’ve been doing this my whole life so why would I be surprised? At the same time, you think you’re going to do well, but you never know how things are going to go. So I’m humbled by that.”

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