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'He's a unicorn': Canucks star defenceman Hughes continues to grow his game

VANCOUVER — There's little Quinn Hughes does on the ice that shocks his Vancouver Canucks teammates anymore. At 23 years old, the American defenceman has already smashed records, and he appears poised to continue elevating his game.
Vancouver Canucks' Quinn Hughes (43) skates with the puck in front of Detroit Red Wings' Pius Suter (24) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Monday, February 13, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — There's little Quinn Hughes does on the ice that shocks his Vancouver Canucks teammates anymore.

At 23 years old, the American defenceman has already smashed records, and he appears poised to continue elevating his game. 

"Everything that he does, from the way that he plays in a game to practice, he’s one of a kind," said fellow blue liner Kyle Burroughs. "He’s a unicorn in a sense.

"How he sees the ice, how he uses his edges — nothing really surprises me anymore with him. He’s up there as one of the best defencemen in the league” 

Hughes has already amassed 67 points (five goals, 62 assists) in 66 appearances this season and sits one shy of the career-high 68 points he put up last year with 11 games to go.

He seems to take the most pride, though, in his play away from the puck. 

“I feel like my game’s really good right now," Hughes said. "I’m proud that I’m plus (in plus-minus) and I’m playing a lot of minutes and defensively I’m being trusted against the top lines. Anyone who says I’m a defensively liability, frankly, doesn’t watch me play at this point.”

Hughes' defensive game is what has impressed Rick Tocchet most since he took over behind the Canucks' bench two months ago. 

He may not regularly level opponents, but the young defencemen uses speed and intelligence to power his "underrated" defensive abilities, the coach said. 

"He’s not going to crush guys, he's not going to muscle guys in the front all the time, but his body position and his puck possession and his will to win — you can see it in his just the way he talks to you," Tocchet said. 

"He's a hockey nerd. He loves hockey. Almost got to back him off in the summer because I think him and his brothers would skate every day."

Tocchet has leaned heavily on Hughes in recent weeks as a spate of injuries continues to plague the Canucks' lineup. 

The five-foot-10, 180-pound blue liner has averaged more than 27 minutes of ice time over Vancouver's last five games and has still found ways to contribute, putting up six assists.

“His aerobic base is incredible, because I've never seen a guy that can play (that much)," Tocchet said. "He’s light on his feet so I think it helps. But he's such a terrific player."

This is the second season in a row that Hughes has contributed at least 60 helpers, becoming the first defenceman in the league to accomplish the feat in back-to-back campaigns since Roy Borque and Paul Coffey did so in 1993-94.

He also set a new Canucks' record for assists by a defenceman in Vancouver's 4-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday, topping the 60 he tallied last year. 

Tyler Myers is in his fourth season playing alongside Hughes and said his teammate is playing his best hockey yet. 

“I think just every time he’s on the ice, he’s making the right play," Myers said. "His decision making is at its highest level right now and you can tell he’s engaged. His consistency has been awesome."

Becoming an assistant captain last month also furthered his development, Myers added.

"He’s been outstanding for us and he’s really stepped up within the room here," he said. "He’s taking big strides and becoming a leader within the room. And it’s awesome."

Heading into Wednesday's slate of NHL games, Hughes sat third among the league's defencemen in scoring behind San Jose's Erik Karlsson (87 points) and Josh Morrissey of Winnipeg (69). 

Keeping pace with the players expected to be up for this year's Norris Trophy — awarded annually to the NHL's top defenceman — is important, Hughes said. 

“I want to be one of the top guys in the league," he said. "I want to keep pushing myself and expect a lot of myself.” 

Last summer, Hughes put in extra work on his shot and planned to be more of an offensive threat heading into 2022-23.

While he has five goals on the season, the defenceman said he's missed a lot of chances, too, and sees the potential for more points down the road.

“I think there’s still lots of room to grow, to be honest with you," Hughes said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023. 

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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