ST. LOUIS — Quinn Hughes may have been skating in his first-ever NHL All-Star Game, but the Vancouver Canucks' rookie defenseman netted one of the prettiest goals of the night — one that impressed none other than The Great One himself.
"That was pretty nice," Pacific Division celebrity captain Wayne Gretzky commented from the bench after Hughes tucked the puck with one hand behind the St. Louis Blues' Jordan Binnington. “Wow. That young lad’s a defenseman?! That's better hands than I had."
Not a bad compliment from someone who netted 894 career goals. But while Gretzky may have been caught off-guard by the talents of the Orlando, Fla., native, the rest of the NHL is fully aware of what he brings to the table each and every night.
"We've only played them once so far this year but just from watching videos of him and seeing what he does on the ice, he's very creative with his play at the blue line," noted Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner. "[He's] got a lot of speed and skill in him so if you give him time and space he's going to make it count."
Drafted seventh overall by the Canucks in 2018, Hughes entered the league last March after the University of Michigan was eliminated in the Big Ten quarterfinals. In just five games with Vancouver, he had three assists and showcased a keen hockey vision, a high-level of speed and dynamic offensive skill.
"Just seeing him in practice the first couple of times I thought he was obviously so smooth and he looked so relaxed on the ice like he wasn't trying," teammate Jacob Markstrom revealed. "Then the first couple of games I figured he'd get a little stiffer and thinking he would be tight and nervous and he played the first couple of games and he was the same way. It was impressive to see and he just keeps going this year, too."
"He brings a lot of skill. He's a young defenseman but he plays such a high level," commented teammate Elias Pettersson to Sporting News. "He's fast, he makes plays, he's smart with the puck and he has a good shot. He's been really good for us this year."
Entering the 2020 All-Star break, Hughes was 11th among all NHL defensemen with 34 points (five goals, 29 assists) — 18 of those points on the power play. At just 20, he was third on the Canucks averaging 21 minutes and 36 seconds of ice time — just two seconds behind 11-year veteran Tyler Myers and about 90 seconds fewer than 14-year Canuck Alex Edler. When delving into the analytics side of things, Hughes was fourth on the Canucks through the team's first 49 games in 5v5 CF% (53.70), second in xGF (34.23) and first in HDGF with 25 goals and a 58.14 for HDGF%.
Needless to say, head coach Travis Green is utilizing his young defenseman, who can not only bury the puck and has a knack for setting up teammates but also has a tendency to go end-to-end — similar to another American-born defenseman in Brian Leetch — on more than one occasion.
— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) October 26, 2019
"A lot like most young defensemen now coming into the league, they have incredible poise with the puck and they can all skate, so watching him, watching [Cale] Makar in Colorado has been pretty impressive," reigning Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano told Sporting News. "It's not easy to step into the NHL and defend as well as they have but I think they do it by having the puck a lot and skating so well, you can't get around them. They're definitely two guys that have really made an impact early in their career."
As the Calgary Flames defenseman unknowingly stated, therein lies the crux — Hughes is consistently being compared to Makar. Are the two the top contenders for the Calder Trophy? Absolutely. They were voted 1-2 in the Professional Hockey Writers Association's Midseason Awards with Makar grabbing 101 first-place votes to Hughes' 11. Although there was a wide gap in voting, if you look at the analytics they literally flip back-and-forth under every statistical category for rookie defensemen at all strengths. However, there is one big knock on Hughes that could be holding him back from being the second consecutive Canuck to win the Calder — his defense.
"Yeah, I actually saw him a couple of weeks ago in Florida," said Chris Pronger, who now works for the Panthers’ front office. "Obviously, tremendous skater, transitions with the puck and offensively — dynamic and creates so much out there. I think, as everybody knows, he’s just gotta work on his defensive game and work on that side of it [while] still playing to his strengths."
At just 5-10, 170-pounds, there's been talk that Hughes is too small to make an impact and handle the size that comes with games down the stretch and in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yes, he's taken far more hits than he's dished out and has more giveaways (44) than takeaways (24), but while the Hall-of Famer may feel Hughes' prowess in his own end needs an upgrade, Hughes himself noted to Sporting News after the All-Star Game that it's something he's been working on.
"I’ve been playing a new defensive role the last two, three months and that’s something I didn’t expect to be doing in my first year — or maybe ever — but I’m really trying as hard as I can on it and something I pride myself on now," he said.
For now, Hughes' offensive game is his bread and butter. After all, he does see more offensive zone starts than defensive ones — by a large margin of 277 to 100; however, his work in his own end at the wide-open All-Star Game left a lasting impression on Pacific Division, and Arizona Coyotes, head coach Rick Tocchet.
“I really like him. He controls the puck and the kid can defend,” he said emphatically. “The one thing that people say is always offense but I think he defended well.
"You don’t always have to hit people to defend. He’s just really quick on people. He’s quick with his stick and I think that [that's what] today’s game is being on with a quick stick and defending."
So who does Tocchet think Hughes reminds him of? "He’s got a little Phil Housley in him," he answered with a smile, as Housley is his assistant coach with the Coyotes. "Very shifty, defends well, he’s got a good shot, very smart player."
A first All-Star Game appearance that left Gretzky dazzled, earned him comparisons to Hall of Fame defensemen such as Scott Niedermayer and Housley, and praise from players around the league. Not bad for a kid from Florida who this time last year was playing college hockey.