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Photo Credit: © Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

2019 Preseason Prospect Rankings: #1 Quinn Hughes

Finishing off our annual preseason rankings in the #1 spot is Quinn Hughes, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Outside of Thatcher Demko, Hughes is the only prospect on our list who’s basically a lock to play a significant role on the Canucks next season. Hughes was unanimously voted as the team’s best prospect, sweeping the #1 spot on each of the lists submitted by CanucksArmy staff members.

We may look back on this list in a few years time and see that Demko or Vasilli Podkolzin turned out to be the more valuable player over his career, but for now, Hughes is the only prospect in the system who seems like a near-guarantee to be a high-quality impact player for the Canucks for a long period of time.

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Qualifications

In keeping with past lists, we’re considering a prospect to be any player who is 25 years of age or younger and who has played less than 25 regular season games at the NHL level. This is a slightly modified and simplified version of the qualifications for the Calder Trophy.

As of the 2018/19 season, both Elias Pettersson and Adam Gaudette have graduated from prospect status.

By The Numbers

TEAM/LEAGUE SEASON GAMES GOALS ASSISTS POINTS PIM +/-
U. OF MICHIGAN/NCAA 2018/19 32 5 28 33 16 -2
VANCOUVER CANUCKS/NHL 2018/19 5 0 3 13 2 0

Oddly enough, pGPS doesn’t exactly take a shine Hughes, giving him an XLS% of just 3.6%. Hughes’ height and production make him a rare player at the NCAA, and all the players in his cohort scored at a less impressive rate than Hughes did, putting him nearly in a league of his own, but not quite. The players in Hughes’ cohort who did succeed generally went on to have pretty impressive careers, which explains why despite his low XLS%, pGPS gives him an expected production rate of around half a point per game.

Data courtesy of NextGenHockey.ca‘s Jeremy Davis

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A pessimist would look at these numbers and say there’s no real precedence for an NCAA player that matches Hughes’ profile succeeding at the NHL level, but a more optimistic (and accurate) way of looking at it would be to say that Hughes was a noticeably better producer in the NCAA at a similar height and age to players like Justin Faulk and Shayne Ghostisbehere. Given that he’s already seen NHL action and looked spectacular in the process, fans would be advised to take Hughes’ less-than-stellar pGPS numbers with a massive grain of salt.

Scouting Report

Since I already spent a large portion of the Tyler Madden profile engaging in some healthy self-criticism, it seems only fair to look back at what I said about the Canucks’ selecting Hughes at seventh overall back in 2018:

“The Canucks absolutely knocked it out of the park with their first round pick by picking not only the best player available, but also addressing the prospect pool’s need: a dynamic offensive talent on the back end. In Hughes, the Canucks got an excellent skater who is tremendously effective in transition and possesses high-end offensive creativity.

When viewed through the lens of pGPS, Hughes actually carries a slightly underwhelming expected success rate of 33.1%. Its important to note, however, that none of the players who met the similarity threshold to match with Hughes’ season scored as much as Hughes did. Players playing in the NCAA in their draft-eligible season is also relatively rare, and American hockey has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade or so. When comparing Hughes only to recent NCAA players who have graduated from the NHL, his season begins to jump off the page. Hughes put up more impressive numbers in his freshman year than Shayne Gostisbehere and Zach Werenski. Hughes looks every bit like he will continue the recent trend of impressive first-round defensemen drafted out of the NCAA that includes Werenski, Charlie McAvoy, and Noah Hanifin.

There really isn’t much to say about this one. You could argue they got a bit lucky here with Hughes falling to them, but many scouting services still had other players ahead of him, and in the end they took the hands-down best player available.”

Much like Elias Pettersson, Hughes was a player I was a big fan of long before he became Canucks property, and he’s rewarded my trust by continuing along an impressive development path that saw him break the point-per-game mark at the NCAA level and pick up three assists over a five-game NHL cameo at the end of the 2018-19 season.

It’s easy to forget now that Quinn Hughes was not the best player or even defender available at seventh overall, and that many fans and scouts had doubted his ability to compete at the NHL level at his size. If you don’t believe me, I suggest quickly scanning the comments section of our pre-draft profile of Hughes from the summer of 2018.

In the week prior to the 2018 draft, Bob McKenzie published his final draft rankings, which essentially act as a survey of how most figures in the NHL and the scouting community feel about each of the players that are likely to be selected in the first round. On Bob’s list, both Noah Dobson and Evan Bouchard were ranked just above Hughes.

The Vancouver Canucks benefited from some good fortune when both Arizona and Detroit passed up on Hughes, but their scouting department deserves full credit for selecting a player who, just over a year out from his selection, looks more offensively gifted and NHL-ready than the defenders ranked above him by a large chunk of the scouting community.

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Hughes possesses all the tools a defenceman needs to be successful in the modern NHL. The phrase “able to turn on a dime” is overused when it comes to evaluating prospects, but in Hughes’ case, it applies. He’s one of the smoothest, most effortless skaters I’ve seen at any level, possessing high-end speed, acceleration and edgework.

Hughes put his skills on full display in his debut for the Canucks, dancing past Trevor Lewis twice to generate a rebound for Brock Boeser, picking up his NHL point in the process.

Hughes’ speed, vision, stickhandling ability, and hockey IQ make him an excellent distributor and especially dangerous in transition. A lot of players with Hughes’ speed don’t possess the hockey IQ to keep up with their feet and are prone to skating themselves into trouble, but Hughes is astonishingly calm as a puck-carrier and rarely gets caught flat-footed. He’s tremendously adept at reading the play and has a keen sense for where his teammates’ will be, even when he can’t see them. He’s also nearly as comfortable on the backhand as the forehand, making him a master of the no-look pass, as he demonstrates on this play, picking up the primary assist on a goal by Markus Granlund.

The one obvious knock against Hughes is his size. At 5’10” and 170 pounds, Hughes struggles to match up physically against larger players in the rare instances that he gets pinned along the boards, and he can occasionally get outmuscled on the forecheck. While physicality will never be a strong area of his game, it won’t hold him back, either. As he gets acclimatized to the NHL and adds weight to his frame, he’ll get better at winning those 50/50 puck battles that can give smaller players trouble.

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The other area of Hughes’ game that has occasionally attracted criticism is his overall defensive play. Based on my viewings of him at the NCAA level, I’d say the concerns are mostly overblown; and he didn’t seem to struggle with NHL competition over his brief appearance with the Canucks at the end of last season, either. 

I spoke to my former CanucksArmy colleague JD Burke, who’s very familiar with Hughes’ body of work from his time tracking for HockeyData, contributing at the Athletic Vancouver, and now as the managing editor of EliteProspects.com. He made it very clear that Hughes’ defensive game is something Canucks fans needn’t be worried about:

“Much of the discourse as it concerns Quinn Hughes’ ability to defend at the NHL level is of a different era. Puck possession is more than half the battle, and every indication out of college is that Hughes’ ability to push the pace of play, execute zone exits and entries with full control of the puck, etc. is suggestive of a player that should excel in this regard at the NHL level. Furthermore, Hughes is just plain good defensively. His positioning is sound. His battle-level is through the roof.
It’s Hughes’ volatility as a puck-carrier that results in the assumption that he can’t play defence. Hughes attempts plays that most couldn’t process from the comfort of their couch, with the benefit of a bird’s eye view of the rink. It works far more often than not, but when it doesn’t — it sticks out. Usually, because it leads to sustained offensive pressure against or a goal in the back of the net. The question, ultimately, is whether Hughes does enough subtle things well to make up for the glaring mistakes. I find myself decisively in the ‘yes’ camp, and so too will most Canucks fans.”
While Hughes’ skill set obviously manifests itself primarily on the offensive side of the puck, Hughes’ quick thinking and ability to read the play also comes in handy in his own zone. While Hughes doesn’t boast the size some of his peers use to box out opposing forwards, he’s almost always in the right place in the defensive zone, and he has an active stick which he uses to break up the opposition’s attack.
Perhaps most importantly, Hughes’ team just doesn’t spend a lot of time without the puck when he’s on the ice, and he can quickly take advantage of the slightest misstep by an opposing forward and get the play moving in the other direction.
As J.D. alluded to, the only real deficiency in Hughes’ game, if you can even call it that, is that he occasionally turns the puck over; but unfortunately that’s just something that comes with the territory of being a dynamic, puck-carrying defender.

Overall, Hughes’ body of work over the past three years is so impressive that virtually nothing could have kept him from taking the top spot in our rankings. He boasts the combination of speed, vision, playmaking, and hockey IQ that the Canucks have been looking for in a defenseman for their entire 50-year history in the NHL, and if he hits his ceiling, he could end up being the best offensive defenseman in team history. That’s something fans haven’t been able to say about a prospect in at least a generation. 

Previous Entries

#2 Vasili Podkolzin

#3 Thatcher Demko

#4 Nils Hoglander

#5 Olli Juolevi

#6 Jett Woo

#7 Michael DiPietro

#8 Tyler Madden

#9 Zach MacEwen

# 10 Kole Lind

#11 Jack Rathbone

#12 Ethan Keppen

#13 Toni Utunen

#14 Jonah Gadjovich

#15 Guillaume Brisebois

#16 William Lockwood

#17 Lukas Jasek

#18 Petrus Palmu 

#19 Jack Malone

#20 Linus Karlsson

Honourable Mentions