Bo Horvat needed to see less than two periods of Quinn Hughes to realize he was different.
Playing in his first NHL game towards at the end of another lost Vancouver Canucks’ season last March, the then-19-year-old defenceman swung deep into the Los Angeles Kings’ zone and bounced a pass off the back of the net to himself in order to shake an opponent before deftly pivoting in front for a quick shot.
Moments later, Hughes had his first NHL point. And the Canucks had a blue-line talent not seen on the West Coast in a long time, if ever.
“We knew we had something special,” Horvat recalled recently. “We’re lucky to have him.”
Fast-forward less than 12 months and Hughes heads the list — along with Colorado Avalanche blue-liner Cale Makar — of presumptive nominees for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
The seventh pick at the 2018 draft has already set a franchise record for assists by a rookie defenceman with 45, while his 53 points are three off Vancouver’s all-time mark for a first-year blue-liner, and seven off the Canucks’ franchise-high for a rookie.
With 13 games left on the schedule, the points record for a defenceman (63) is also within reach.
“They mean a lot just because I don’t want to take it for granted,” Hughes said of the milestones. “But at the same time like I don’t want to take my foot off the pedal.”
The native of Orlando, Fla., hasn’t shown any signs of that.
Players coming out of U.S. college — Hughes spent two years at the University of Michigan — often struggle towards the end of their first professional season as more games, travel, and tougher opposition take their toll.
Not Hughes, who’s averaging nearly 22 minutes a night of ice time, including the 27:08 he played Sunday against Columbus.
He’s logged north of 25 minutes nine times in 2019-20, with four of those games coming since the middle of February.
“He could probably play three games in one day,” Canucks head coach Travis Green said. “This part of the year can be a grind sometimes because you’re tired. Your body gets worn down. And a lot of that is, ‘Are you a natural skater?’
“From the outside looking in, you don’t understand sometimes how hard guys have to work to skate now, how they sprint for 30 seconds during a shift. The guys that are the natural skaters really benefit.”
Partnered with Hughes since training camp, Christopher Tanev has occupied a front-row seat for his teammate’s impressive debut, one often accented by an uncanny ability to create space seemingly out of nothing.
“He brings a lot of aspects that no one else in the league can,” said the veteran defenceman. “Very quick side to side. A lot of guys are fast in a straight line. It’s the guys that can get from two feet left to four feet right in a blink of an eye that are very dangerous. He uses his body and his edges tremendously.”
Horvat said there’s been plenty of times when he thought Hughes — who spent his formative hockey years in the Toronto area when his father was a member of the Maple Leafs’ front office before moving to Michigan with the family at age 15 — was in a heap of trouble only to watch him make one move and have the seas part.
“It seems like every shift you’re like, ‘Oh God,’” Horvat said with a grin. “Then all of a sudden he’s four feet away from the guy.”
Apart from the skill, what stands out is the quiet confidence exuded by Hughes.
He isn’t cocky. He just knows.
“Once in a while you’re gonna make a play that’s not the best,” Tanev said. “He shakes it off. It doesn’t bug him … 99 per cent of the time he’s gonna make the right play.
“He seems to just roll with the punches.”
The older brother of 2019 first overall pick Jack Hughes, Quinn Hughes said his cameo at the end of last season prepared him for the hype in a hockey market starving for a return to respectability.
“That helped just wrap my head around what to expect and have confidence in myself,” said Hughes, whose Canucks are in the middle of a fierce playoff race and looking to return to the post-season for the first time since 2014-15. “I thought I was gonna have a good year, but at the same time, you never really know.
“I just went in there expecting anything.”
Canucks centre Elias Pettersson, last season’s Calder winner and one of three rookies to score 60 points with Vancouver, played against Hughes internationally before they became teammates.
“I didn’t think he would be (available) when we drafted,” Pettersson said. “I knew how hard it was to play against him.”
A lot of ink was spilled on Jack, a slick centre, ahead of the 2019 draft. It might have been difficult from some siblings, but not Quinn.
“All the attention (Jack) got, he deserved,” Hughes said. “I was just a proud older brother.”
Now it’s his turn to get the accolades.
The 20-year-old finished second in Calder voting to Makar, out with an upper-body injury since late last month, in mid-season voting, but is now six points clear of his nearest competition.
“I’m a competitive guy,” Hughes said when asked if he follows Makar’s highlights and statistics. “I’d be lying if I say I didn’t. He’s a really fun player for me to watch.”
Fans and teammates in Vancouver feel the same way — and then some — about their own star rookie.
“You see what he can do and how agile is, how smart he is, how confident he is,” Tanev said. “Everyone else on the team feeds off it.
“He’s a very special player.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2020.
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