Canucks’ Quinn Hughes gears up for a more biting game

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“I’ve always worked on skills and hands, but I think this year is more about things that could help me as a defender.”

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It is one thing to be invited to the dance. It’s another not to trip over your feet.

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As the Vancouver Canucks continue to assess the true value of restricted free agent Quinn Hughes in contract extension negotiations, what the quick-footed, quick-thinking, laser-like defenseman has already demonstrated should be the foundation for long-term engagement.

Building blocks are the extra dimension he can provide in the playoffs. And if the Canucks hope to become a consistent and credible postseason contender – and not just one-off tourists – they need Hughes to lead the game from behind. They also need him to better defend.

That’s why his off-season focus has shifted from skills to groundwork that will pay off when it matters most. Perhaps mixing him up with National Hockey League first-round draft brothers Jack and Luke in summer skating skill tests can translate into the season ahead.

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“I go over the summer to work on every part of my game and it’s more of a specific idea,” said Hughes, 21. “I’ve always worked on skills and hands, but I think this year is more about things that could help me as a defenseman.

Hughes added more points last season with 41 (3-38) in 56 games, but defending was getting harder and harder. He was either caught in aggressive pinches from the attacking zone or too late in the retreat to sideline the opposition with positioning before they established a downward physical presence. This has become more difficult in a compact schedule and a COVID-19 outbreak that has affected Hughes as much as his teammates.

“Everything went so well (2019-20) and we had a great year and everything was so easy,” said Hughes. “This year was more of a learning experience for everyone.”

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If adversity translates into two-way efficiency in the playoffs, the Canucks will benefit. After all, Hughes proved in the 2020 playoff bubble that he can handle increased attention – especially in a seven-game streak against the Vegas Golden Knights – and the adulation he received for amassing 16. points (2-14) in 17 postseason games was beaten by the respect he earned from the opposition.

2018 Canucks first-round pick Quinn Hughes (right) brings in younger brother Jack (left) after the latter was picked first overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 2019 NHL Draft , while his younger brother (and ultimately rounder 2021 first) Luke watches the NHL Draft in June 2019 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
2018 Canucks first-round pick Quinn Hughes (right) brings in younger brother Jack (left) after the latter was picked first overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 2019 NHL Draft , while his younger brother (and ultimately rounder 2021 first) Luke watches the NHL Draft in June 2019 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. Photo by Dave Sandford /NHLI via Getty Images files

Adjusting to tight hits and heavy hitting was as impressive as being the power play quarterback. When the Golden Knights took away his opportunities to trigger the transition, he found another path.

“When you watch a slow-motion video you always see that he (Hughes) is able to play in and in traffic and get out of trouble so often,” said Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer. “He’s a special player who has the ability, even with the pressure and the attention, to make plays.”

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Hughes looks like both a player and a coach as he embarks on a detailed gap analysis to support the forward failure and routing the pucks to the attackers at high speed, so they don’t are not blocked at the opponent’s blue line.

He is also extremely hard on himself as a rich family sports line provided an early support system and production platform. The stage never seemed too big for Hughes – he was the youngest player at 18 to compete in the world hockey championship – and the confidence that comes with that feat has never been interpreted as arrogance.

A memorable evening at the Bell Center put that determination to the test.

Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks rolls the puck during an NHL game in March 2021 against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena.
Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks rolls the puck during an NHL game in March 2021 against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena. Photo by Rich Lam /Getty Images files

During a meeting on February 25, 2020 in Montreal, Hughes was treated like a pinata early and often by Canadiens forward Max Domi. He first delivered a non-penalized counter-check that dropped Hughes into the corner boards. He then leveled Hughes again in the corner. He was slow to get up and Travis Green gave some wise advice. The simple message was not to come down and try to avoid contact.

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Hughes adjusted accordingly to collect an assist, six shots and stayed out of the penalty area in a 4-3 overtime win.

“With hockey it’s going to happen,” said durable Hughes of the tough stuff. “It’s part of the game and especially going forward and into the playoffs. It’s going to happen more often and honestly you have to take it as a compliment if the guys hit you on it.

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What does all of this mean in a long-term extension for Hughes?

If the Canucks pledge US $ 8 million a year over six years, or up to eight years, they’re betting on 2020 Calder Trophy finalist mimicking what 2020 Calder winner Cale Makar, 22, did for the Avalanche. Colorado last season (all figures are in US dollars. He scored 44 points (8-36) in 44 games, fifth among all defensemen, with 10 points (2-8) in 10 playoff games.

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This is why Makar is a comparable contract. His six-year, $ 54 million extension that begins next season carries total annual earnings of $ 8, 9, 11, 11, 10.6, 8.7 and 6.7 million. The annual cap commitment of $ 9 million could be too high for the Canucks, so $ 8 million could be the magic number.

There is also another comparable in Miro Heiskanen, 22, of the Dallas Stars. Its eight-year extension of $ 67.6 million will also begin this fall. He had 27 points (8-19) in 55 games last season and 26 points (6-20) in 27 playoff games in 2020 to lead all defensemen.

His ability to defend himself and get into the game is rewarded with an annual cap of $ 8.45 million and total salaries of $ 5, 7, $ 10, 11, 11, 11, $ 9, $ 8 and $ 6.6 million. Those first two years could pique the Canucks’ level of interest for lower payouts.

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