The Canucks first round pick in the 2018 NHL draft was coming off a season where he finished second in Calder voting behind Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche and received three votes for the Norris.
In 2019-20, he managed eight goals and 45 assists for 58 points in 68 games. That is on pace for nine goals and 54 assists for 63 points in a full 82 game season. In 17 playoff games in the bubble, Hughes impressed with two goals and 14 assists for 16 points.
In a different and shortened 2020-21 season, Hughes’ offensive numbers were still good with three goals and 38 assists for 41 points in 56 games.
However, his defensive game was very poor and the Canucks had a season to forget finishing last in the Scotia North Division.
At the time of this writing, Hughes still isn’t signed by the Canucks.
What happened to Hughes’ defensive game?
Before we answer that, let’s answer this question first: How bad was Hughes’ defence last season?
It was pretty bad.
Hughes didn’t have the best defensive numbers in his rookie season but they got worse in his sophomore season.
Per NHL.Com, Hughes was on the ice for 64 even strength goals. That is second worst among all NHL skaters behind Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks who was on the ice for 68 even strength goals against.
Hughes also had a -22 on ice even strength goal differential which was third worse behind David Savard’s -30 (he played the season with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning.) and Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres who had a -32 on ice even strength goal differential.
Those are the just the numbers but what about the eye-test?
It wasn’t pretty either.
He was prone to turning the puck over and let opponents easily get passed him all season as you can see in the clips below.
There are many factors that could answer the question of why Hughes’ defensive game fell of a cliff.
The first is the loss of Chris Tanev who he did well with in 2019-20. Tanev signed a four-year deal with the Calgary Flames in the 2020 offseason and had a resurgence there.
Hughes was mainly paired with Travis Hamonic and they didn’t have the best season together to say the least.
Per Dobber’s frozen tools’ Hughes and Hamonic gave up 17 goals in all situations against together. That was third worst on the Canucks behind the Hughes-Myers pairing giving up 18 and the Alex Edler- Nate Schmidt duo giving up 26.
Hughes was also playing high minutes last season. He led all Canucks in total ice time with 990:25. That meant he was playing against really tough competition. Hughes had to match up against the likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau multiple times.
Speaking of those players, the condensed schedule is also a factor. Playing against the same teams, with the same players must have been exhausting. There was also the COVID outbreak that swept through the Canucks players and coaches and even Hughes himself got the virus and felt the effects soon afterwards.
Add up all those factors and Hughes looked lost and not very confident defending. How can he improve next season?
How can Hughes improve next season?
With his defensive sophomore slump now behind him, how will Hughes rebound next year?
His defensive game doesn’t have to be elite next season but it has to be better than last season.
Is there someone who can help him with it? The answer is yes.
New assistant coach Brad Shaw specializes in defence and has helped out young defencemen in St.Louis and Columbus including Alex Pietreangelo, Seth Jones and Zack Werenski.
Hopefully Shaw can help Hughes improve his defensive game as well.
Shaw talked about Hughes in a Sportsnet 650 radio hit in June.
"“He has to learn how to win one-on ones quicker or be patient in one-on-ones that you can’t win until the puck is exposed. He’s such a great skater and looks like he has a great head on his shoulders as far as seeing the ice. All the things help him out offensively, his passing ability, being a step ahead on the offensive side, these are things you can translate to the defensive side. as well. Body position is huge and stick position. Once Quinn learns to get a little better and then put the package together, now he becomes a real transition threat as well. It’s a process, it’s not an instantaneous thing and it’s a learning curve. It’s not a straight line either there is going to be some good and bad that go with it. “"
There is also the idea of putting him with a better partner and fill the void Tanev left.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many options. Hamonic is likely to start with Hughes once again and he also has to improve in his own end.
Putting him Myers isn’t the best idea either. Like Hughes, Myers is a puck-moving defencemen and also isn’t very good in his own end.
Then there is Tucker Poolman. Poolman has struggled in top four minutes with the Winnipeg Jets and is more suited to be a bottom pairing defencemen.
In other words, Hughes has to likely carry his pairing both offensively and defensively.
Yes, he is offensively gifted but the defensive game is equally as important. He needs to work on winning the puck battles, defending on the rush and learn to not leave his opponents open.
I’m confident he can improve especially with Shaw in the mix. Hughes is only 21 and there is still lots of room for growth. The Canucks have a special player and he is a big part of the core going forward.
Once he puts his defensive game together, Hughes will be an unstoppable force.