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Canucks’ Hughes moves to gear up for a more grinding game

‘I’ve always been working on the skill set and hands, but I think this year is more on stuff that might help me as a defenceman’

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

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As the Vancouver Canucks continue to evaluate the true worth of restricted free agent Quinn Hughes in contract extension negotiations, what the fleet-footed, quick-thinking and laser-like passing defenceman has already demonstrated should be the foundation of a long-term commitment.

The building blocks are the added dimension he can provide in the playoffs. And if the Canucks hope to become a consistent and credible post-season contender — and not just one-and-done tourists — they need Hughes to drive the play from the back end. They also need him to defend better.

It’s why his off-season focus shifted from skills to grunt work that’s going to pay off when it matters most. Maybe mixing it up with National Hockey League first-round draft brothers Jack and Luke in down-low summer skating tests of skill and will can translate into the coming season.

“I go into the summers to work on every part of my game and this is more of a specific idea,” said the 21-year-old Hughes. “I’ve always been working on the skill set and hands, but I think this year is more on stuff that might help me as a defenceman.”

Hughes still put up points last season with 41 (3-38) in 56 games, but defending was getting harder. He was either caught on aggressive offensive-zone pinches or too late in retreat to angle off the opposition with positioning before they established a down-low, physical presence. It became more difficult in a compacted schedule and COVID-19 outbreak that affected Hughes as much as his teammates.

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“Everything was so smooth (2019-20) and we were having a good year and everything was so easy,” said Hughes. “This year, it was more of a learning experience for everyone.”

If adversity translates into two-way effectiveness in the playoffs, the Canucks will benefit. After all, Hughes proved in the 2020 playoff bubble that he could handle added attention — especially in a seven-game series against the Vegas Golden Knights — and adulation he received for amassing 16 points (2-14) in 17 post-season games was trumped by the respect he earned from the opposition.

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

Adapting to tight checking and heavy hitting were as impressive as quarterbacking the power play. When the Golden Knights took away his outlets to trigger the transition, he found another route.

“When you rewatch video on slo-mo, you still see that he (Hughes) is able to make plays through and in traffic and skate himself out of trouble so often,” said Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer. “He’s a special player who has the ability, even with pressure and attention, to make plays.”

Hughes sounds like part player and part coach when he goes into detailed analysis of gapping up to support the forecheck and getting pucks to forwards at speed, so they’re not jammed up at the opposition blue line.

He’s also extremely hard on himself because a rich, family sporting lineage provided an early support system and platform for production. The stage has never seemed too big for Hughes — he was the youngest player at age 18 to compete in the world hockey championship — and confidence that comes with that achievement has never been interpreted as cockiness.

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A memorable night in the Bell Centre put that resolve to the test.

Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks wheels the puck up ice during a March 2021 NHL game against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena.
Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks wheels the puck up ice during a March 2021 NHL game against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena. Photo by Rich Lam /Getty Images files

In a Feb. 25, 2020 meeting in Montreal, Hughes was treated like a pinata early and often by Canadiens forward Max Domi. He first delivered an unpenalized crosscheck that dumped Hughes into the corner boards. He then levelled Hughes again in the corner. He was slow to get up and Travis Green provided some sage advice. The simple message was to not get down and try to avoid contact.

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

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

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

If the Canucks commit US $8 million annually over six years, or as many as eight years, they’re banking on the 2020 Calder Trophy runner-up emulating what 2020 Calder winner Cale Makar, 22, did for the Colorado Avalanche last season (all figures are in U.S. dollars. He followed up 44 points (8-36) in 44 games, fifth among all defencemen, with 10 points (2-8) in 10 playoff games.

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It’s why Makar is a contract comparable. His six-year, $54-million extension that kicks in next season carries annual total salary hits of $8, $9, $11, $10.6, $8.7 and $6.7 million. The $9-million annual cap commitment might be too rich for the Canucks, so $8 million might be the magic number.

There’s also another comparable in Miro Heiskanen, 22, of the Dallas Stars. His eight-year, $67.6-million extension also kicks in this fall. He had 27 points (8-19) in 55 games last season and 26 points (6-20) in 27 playoffs games in 2020 to lead all blueliners.

His ability to defend and jump up into the play is being rewarded with an $8.45-million annual cap hit and total salaries payouts of $5, $7, $10, $11, $11, $9, $8 and $6.6 million. Those first two years might pique the Canucks’ interest level in lower payouts.

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