When the 2023-24 NHL season was set to begin, Vancouver Canucks Head Coach Rick Tocchet had an interesting strategy for the Canucks' defensive approach: defense by committee.
“I think we’re a committee, and I want them to get used to it,” said Tocchet.
His comments after a preseason practice in October had many around the NHL scratching their heads. When asked about the intricacies of his defense pairings, the Canucks’ head coach spoke to the media about his game plan for the Canucks blueline.
“I think it’s okay to have a committee. I don’t think we’re going to have true partners the whole year, so might as well get used to playing with different guys” Tocchet continued.
It was quite the statement by the head coach. Defense by committee with, what was at the time, one of the worst defenses in the league, seemed doomed from the start. The offseason acquisitions of Ian Cole, Carson Soucy, and Filip Hronek aided in bolstering the blueline for the Canucks, yet still, questions about Vancouver’s defense group remained.
Though defending by committee seemed less insurmountable under the defensively detailed gaze of new head coach Rick Tocchet, the approach still seemed questionable at best. What exactly would a committee effort look like for the Vancouver Canucks? Who is expected to lead the group’s efforts?
Someone's got to do it
At the start of the season, Quinn Hughes was really the only guaranteed piece of the Vancouver Canucks’ defense. Before being named to the captaincy, it was all-too-well understood that the 24-year-old defenseman’s role was set to expand. The marquee man on the Canucks blueline, Hughes seemed to be a natural shoe-in for the title of committee leader, with or without the C on his sweater.
When Hughes was named team captain prior to the start of the season, Rick Tocchet spoke about those natural leadership qualities, “There are a lot of ways to lead, and Quinn does it by example and by always giving his teammates, coaches and organization the upmost respect. When he does address the locker room it is very powerful and his growth and maturation in just the short time I have been here is very impressive.”
For the Quinn Hughes truthers out there (and there’s a lot) none of this came as a surprise. The Calder trophy finalist was already clocking 20+ minutes a night in ice time and burning through team records like old-school blank CD’s. A sort of communal defensive style sounded risky, but it certainly was not a blind leading the blind situation.
Still, Hughes went largely disregarded by the league. His skill set and talents were shrouded in pessimism. Despite his production staying consistent over the years, some around the NHL still discounted his ability to find the next level in his game and questioned his readiness to take over as captain.
Even with the team’s fast start to the season, skepticism and uncertainty still often remain the focal point of the narratives surrounding the team. “As a player, I don't feel like I need to prove anything,” Hughes recently told Sportsnet.
If there’s any truth in the phrase “numbers don’t lie” - he doesn’t.
The proof is out there
Currently, the captain is leading much more than just the Canucks blueline. Approaching the mid-way point of the season, Hughes has 46 points in just 38 games, second only to J.T. Miller (50)
in team scoring. He leads the league in goals amongst defensemen with 10, and is tied with Cale Makar for the sole possession of the league’s assists lead amongst defenders (36). It’s a 1.21 points-per-game pace, with Hughes sitting ninth overall in the league’s points race - the only defenseman in the league’s top 10.
Hughes leads away from the offensive contributions as well. His plus-25 plus-minus rating doesn’t just lead the team; it leads the league amongst all skaters. He’s proven repeatedly that he can make responsible, defensively sound decisions with the puck.
In the Nov. 20 game against the San Jose Sharks, he became the first player of the season to crack the 30-point mark, becoming the first defenseman to do it since Bobby Orr in 1974-75. With the feat, he also became the third d-man in NHL history to score 30 points in 20 or fewer games, joining the ranks of both Orr and Al MacInnis. In December, he became the first Vancouver Canucks defenseman to score 40 points in 40 or less games.
If he were struggling in any capacity or unable to handle the weight of the moment, Quinn Hughes would be doing well not to show it. The Canucks defender is on-pace to break a record he’s already broken once before. Setting the new franchise record for 76 points in a single season during last year’s 2022-23 campaign, a record previously held by Doug Lidster, Hughes is just 31 points shy of setting another new precedent. With 44 games still yet to be played, it’s an understatement to say he may do it.
Put some respect on it
It’s a superstar caliber performance from the Canucks captain, and it should really come as a shock to no one that Quinn Hughes now finds himself earning his second All-Star Game appearance. He’s already rewritten the league’s record books this season, and there’s still over half of the schedule remaining. Hughes’ NHL All-Star debut came during his 2019-20 rookie season. He was already smashing records back then, too.
A new coach, new responsibilities, and new expectations haven’t slowed down Hughes. Neither have the doubts and disbelief. Rather than protest, the Canucks defenseman has stepped up and allowed his play and the play of his team, speak for themselves.
Leading both his team and the league, Quinn Hughes is deserving of some credit where it’s due. An All-Star nomination for a season that’s already been phenomenal is a nice place to start.