Vancouver fans, meet your next young superstar.
The moment the Canucks drafted Quinn Hughes seventh overall in 2018, it was clear the team had their next franchise defenseman – and, perhaps, their best defenseman ever. Like any prospect honing their craft in college, however, there was a waiting game. The wait is over. After his second season with the University of Michigan ended earlier this month, the Canucks signed Hughes to a three-year, entry-level contract.
With Hughes set to arrive in Vancouver on Tuesday (albeit with an ankle injury), there’s a good chance we’ll see him make his NHL debut very soon. Vancouver’s next game is against the New York Rangers on Wednesday, and if his injury isn’t that serious, Hughes could make his debut at home.
With injuries to Chris Tanev and Ben Hutton taking the two veterans out of action for an extended period, the Canucks have a rather unfavorable defensive lineup. That is, of course, unless you think Luke Schenn and Ashton Sautner are worthy of being on the second D-pairing. So now Vancouver needs to consider just giving Hughes the reins, allowing him to run free and be a leader on a defense corps that truly needs help now. Let him play. Let him learn and get better.
Throwing rookies to the wolves can be a dangerous thing, but with Hughes it's a no-lose situation. He's as prepared as any prospect to get the job done: he's capable of playing a lot of minutes and has has experience playing a big role. And the Canucks, nine points out of a playoff spot, have no reason to be afraid of giving important ice time to a young player.
During college, Hughes was the go-to guy for Michigan. He didn't disappoint – he was a member of the Big Ten All-Rookie and Second All-Star teams last year after helping his school to an NCAA Frozen Four appearance. This year? He’s a Hobey Baker candidate, awarded to the best player in the college ranks. Additionally, while he didn’t play many meaningful minutes at the World Championship last year for the United States, Hughes did show he belonged with the pros and didn’t struggle with the pace. He was just 18 at the time, though, and in the formative years for young prospects, an extra year can result in big improvements for a defender.
Sure, nothing he has done yet can compare to the NHL, but a kid with as much big-game experience as Hughes has – he has won or come close to winning championships at essentially every level of hockey – could rejuvenate a blueline that doesn’t have much going for it.
Hughes is known to be a risk-taker, someone who likes to go end-to-end with the puck and isn’t afraid to get creative to beat an opponent in a one-on-one situation. And though he isn’t a big defender, he’s a smart one. He was able to adapt to his role as a depth defender with USA's World Championship team and didn’t struggle as a key member of back-to-back World Junior Championship teams, either. Even when he would make a more risky play, he typically would find a way to make up for it and wouldn’t put a teammate in a dangerous situation just to make a pass. The Canucks could use him immediately on the power play, and his heavy shot looks NHL ready.
The Canucks are in a situation where a couple of bad games from Hughes won’t hurt them, and the extra experience could be huge for their coveted prospect, who had no problems playing against older and stronger competition in college each night. It's not like it's a full-season excursion they're giving him. It's just a handful of games to get his feet wet before his rookie season next year. Give him a chance to learn from a guy like Alex Edler. Don't bury Hughes. Use him.
The Canucks have games against wild-card contenders Dallas and Columbus, as well as some late-season meetings with powerhouses Calgary, San Jose and Nashville. The opportunity is perfect for Vancouver to give Hughes every opportunity to develop, make mistakes and, realistically, make the defense even stronger in what has been a rather forgettable season in the standings for the club.
Fans in Vancouver showed Hughes a lot of love when he represented the United States at the world juniors a few months ago, but now they have a better reason to get excited: he’s on their side now.