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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

How Quinn Hughes is Breaking Conventions and Expectations to Become a Shutdown Defenceman

Quinn Hughes has been nothing short of a revelation this season. He’s played a major role in revitalizing Vancouver’s power play, and is part of a three-horse race for the 2020 Calder Trophy along with Colorado’s Cale Makar and Buffalo’s Victor Olofsson.

An undersized but highly skilled defender, we were led to believe that defensive deficiencies were going to be something that the team would have to live with in exchange for marvelous offensive talents. Few expected Hughes to instead be shutting down his opponents in addition to piling up points – and yet that’s exactly what he’s been doing.

Hughes isn’t what you think of when you imagine a conventional shutdown defenceman. Few would have dared to identify him as such when the 5-foot-10 rearguard was taken seventh overall at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, and those who did would likely have been mocked. But Hughes is proving the shutting down opponent isn’t about how you’re built. He’s not doing it through traditional methods – we’re not talking about clearing the net front and punishing forwards in the corners – Hughes uses his dynamic skating ability to create time and space and break the puck out of his zone and up the ice with refreshing regularity. Even on rush defence, his skating allows him to quickly recover from missteps and strong stick-work separates opponents from pucks without taking obstruction penalties.

In the days of yore, a shutdown defenceman referred to rearguards whose primary role was to prevent the other team from scoring, rather than contribute at both ends of the ice with the intention of providing a net positive value. The traditional shutdown defender has a stereotypical player type, with associated features: often they were big and physical, with a mean streak and a penchant for clearing opponents away from the front of the net (and, if we’re being honest, he was usually Canadian).

When the Canucks acquired Erik Gudbranson in the summer of 2016, he was touted as a shutdown defenceman by the media, by fans, and by the acquiring team itself.

On the surface, Gudbranson epitomized these prototypical traits. That’s why he was selected third overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers despite scoring two goals and 23 points in 41 games.

I think it’s fair to say that the team’s expectations did not match the reality. During his two and a half seasons in Vancouver, the Canucks allowed 333 more scoring chances than they generated while Gudbranson was on the ice, despite relatively average deployment.

Quinn Hughes as a Shot Suppressor

Quinn Hughes was painted with an entirely opposite brush. While some of the trepidation regarding his defensive acumen is grounded in actual scouting reports from his time in college hockey, at least some of it is a direct result of his stature. Small defenders are becoming commonplace in the NHL, but we are conditioned to expect them to be offensive dynamos that need to be sheltered defensively, because small size allegedly inhibits defensive ability.

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Not that every Canucks fan wouldn’t trade some defensive struggles for offensive magic from Hughes. The surprising part of this tale is that the defensive struggles have, to this point, been entirely absent from the data.

Hughes leads all Canucks defencemen this season in all facets of shot share metrics, including shot attempts, unblocked shots, scoring chances and expected goals. The team’s shot generation when Hughes is on the ice is highly impressive, but it’s his shot suppression that really blows you away.

Hughes currently has the lowest shot attempts, unblocked shots, shots on net, scoring chances and expected goals per hour of all Vancouver Canucks defencemen.

Using the threat heat maps from HockeyViz.com, we can see the stark contrast in Vancouver’s defensive zone data. While Hughes is on the ice, the Canucks are well below league average in shots against. When he’s not on the ice, they’re well above average in that regard.

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What this means is that Quinn Hughes isn’t just suppressing shots at a high end rate – he’s doing it on a team that is otherwise quite porous defensively. It doesn’t matter who he’s playing with either. The two best Canucks pairings at limiting shot attempts, unblocked shots and expected goals per hour this season according to MoneyPuck.com (minimum 100 minutes) are Hughes-Tanev and Hughes-Myers.

Emergence as a Shutdown Defender

Quality of Competition (“QoC“) has become a bit of a taboo topic within analytics circles. It’s not that playing against better opponents isn’t more difficult (it is), it’s that the players that you rely on to play against the other teams best players also a) tend to play with your team’s best players and b) tend to get so much ice time in general that they also spend a lot of time against the other team’s lesser players, washing out a lot of the results. For a more in depth description on the modern view of QoC, check out Daniel Wagner’s article here.

For that reason, using QoC to judge results should be met with a degree of skepticism. I’m going to approach it from a different angle though: as a measure of the coach’s trust. Whatever analytics is suggesting about the viability of QoC metrics, there’s no denying that coaches (especially line-matching coaches like Travis Green) still believe in putting out reliable defensive players to shutdown top offensive threats.

Hughes’ development as a shutdown player appears to have made its impression on the Canucks coaching staff. At the beginning of the season, Green consistently used reliable veterans Alex Edler and Tyler Myers as his shutdown pairing (the pairing most frequently deployed against other teams’ top lines), while Hughes was attached at the hip to defensive specialist Chris Tanev, receiving relatively safe minutes against middle six opponents with deployment that edged towards the offensive end of the rink.

Fast forward to the end of the calendar year and things are markedly different.

Everything appears to have changed when Alex Edler went down with injury. That forced Green to switch up his pairings, which landed Hughes with Myers for the most part. Hughes continued in his previous role, with Tanev taking over the shutdown role in Edler’s absence (usually alongside Oscar Fantenberg).

In mid-December however, Hughes’ pairing started being hard-matched against opponents’ top lines with increasing regularity. Never has it been more pronounced than on the most recent home stand. I went through each game and checked which lines the Hughes pairing played most frequently against, as well as that lines rank in ice time for that game. The only opposing line that wasn’t the top line of the night was Vegas’ line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault on December 19th. That night the line of Max Pacioretty, Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone played more (and were matched by Tyler Myers and Oscar Fantenberg), but the argument could be made that Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault is just as dangerous.

Date Team Most Frequent Line Line # Home/Away
29-Dec-19 CGY Backlund-Monahan-Gaudreau 1st Away
28-Dec-19 LAK Iafallo-Kopitar-Toffoli 1st Home
23-Dec-19 EDM McDavid-Draisaitl-Kassian 1st Home
21-Dec-19 PIT Guentzel-Malkin-Rust 1st Home
19-Dec-19 VGK Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault 2nd Home
17-Dec-19 MTL Tatar-Danault-Gallagher 1st Home

You’ll notice that Hughes’ deployment against top lines has continued even after Edler’s return from injury. Reunited with Chris Tanev, Green’s new shutdown pairing has continued to receive sharper and more pronounced line-matching as this present winning streak has been building. I don’t think the winning streak’s crossover with the new shutdown pairing is a coincidence, and I doubt Green thinks that either.

Hughes’ pairing got eaten up to the tune of an expected goal share 41.4% against Vegas, but outside of that, Hughes rocked positive expected goal shares in all of the other games listed (according to Evolving-Hockey.com) above despite matching up against top lines.

Over the course of the season, Hughes’ most frequent opponent has been non other than Connor McDavid, who sources tell is pretty good. Hughes and McDavid have shared the ice for 33 minutes this season, with the Canucks coming out on top in shot attempts and scoring chances in that time, controlling 61.7% of expected goals. He’s also put up impressive shares against high end talent like Jeff Carter (81.7% expected goals), Sean Couturier (72.7% expected goals), Mitch Marner (56.3% expected goals) and Evgeni Kuznetsov (56.2% expected goals). The only high caliber lines that have really gotten the best of Hughes this season are Malkin’s line, Kopitar’s lines and Vegas’ Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault line (all opposition data from NaturalStatTrick.com).

Like QoC, zone starts can be pretty overrated, but once again they provide a good indication of a coach’s trust in a player – specifically offensive versus defensive zone shift starts (which again should be taken with a grain of salt as they account for only 75-80% of shift starts). The following chart plots Hughes’ distribution of shift starts (in 5-game rolling averages) over the course of the season. The last 5-game segment has shown Hughes’ defensive zone shift starts rise to their highest rate all season – and on equal footing with his offensive zone shift starts.

Further evidence can again be seen in opposition data, as Quinn Hughes has taken 13 defensive zone face-offs against Connor McDavid this season (including nine at the start of shifts), more than any other opponent. This further demonstrates that Green is not afraid of starting Hughes in the defensive zone – even against the best player in the entire NHL.

One other small tidbit in favour of Hughes’ defensive deployment: he leads Canuck defencemen in icing-percentage, a metric tracked by Evolving-Hockey.com that compares the number of times opponents have iced the puck versus the numbers of times the team has iced the puck while each player was on the ice. With Hughes on the ice, the Canucks have iced the puck 40 times this season, compared to forcing 49 icings from their opponents for an icing percentage of 55.1%, indicating that Hughes and his linemates are doing a better job at hemming in their opponents than vice versa. No other Vancouver defenceman is above 50%.

Hughes has completely changed the fabric of the Canucks from a two-way standpoint. When he’s on the ice, the Canucks are more dangerous offensively and stingier defensively. Few defenders are adding as much overall value as he is this season. Hughes is currently sitting in 11th in Goals Above Replacement among defenders according to Evolving Wild’s GAR model, and is second among all Canucks only to Elias Pettersson. His even strength defence is playing a not insignificant role.

When discussing the improvements from last season to this one, it’s easy to talk about how big name/big money additions like Tyler Myers, J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland have helped change the fortunes of this team, but I think it’s pretty clear that there has been no bigger addition than Quinn Hughes.

The fact that Hughes is being trusted to shutdown opposing teams’ best players is a tremendous development, and the fact that he’s continuing to dominate play while doing it is even more impressive. There seems to be no limit to what Hughes is able to handle, and he’s still in his rookie year. It’s difficult to even comprehend what his ceiling might be given what he can accomplish at the age of 20.