In 2018, the draft thesis for Quinn Hughes came down to where one stood in the debate over the importance of size in today’s NHL. In Hughes, the team that drafted him was getting an uber-talented player. That much was clear.
His edgework was already NHL calibre and his cerebral qualities allowed him to view the ice in a way that not many prospects in his draft class could. These two qualities allowed him to be a one-man transition machine at the University of Michigan. Add in the fact that he could truly quarterback a powerplay with his vision, puck skills, and playmaking ability and you have a prospect that could provide immense value at the NHL level.
Hughes’ talent was undeniable, but for some, the fact that he was a 5’ 10” defenceman pushed him down their draft rankings. Concerns about how he would defend against men meant that some didn’t believe he could become a true number one defencemen worthy of a top 5 selection.
Size bias is an issue in the game of hockey, especially for defencemen. Looking back on the last 10 NHL drafts, only 2 defencemen shorter than 5’ 11” were taken in the top 10. Quinn Hughes and his Calder compatriot Cale Makar the year prior. A study of the NHL’s Central Scouting service conducted by Neutralzone.net found that in their 2017 draft rankings, only 5 defencemen shorter than 5’ 11” were ranked at all and the average defenceman was at least an inch taller than any other position.
I could talk all about the thrilling, record-breaking playoff performance Quinn Hughes had in his rookie season. It was a tour de force and a glimpse into what a Hughes led Canucks blueline could be for the next decade.
His 16 points in 17 games made him the highest single playoff scoring defenceman in franchise history in a significantly fewer amount of games played than incumbent Jeff Brown who had 15 points in 24 games. He is also tied for the most assists for a rookie in NHL playoff history with 14. That’s not just defencemen, that’s all skaters.
At 5-on-5, he was second on the Canucks in minutes played, second in controlling the shot share, third in controlling the expected goals, and did this while being keyed in on by opposing teams as a focal point of their game plans. Quinn Hughes was Vancouver’ best defenceman and was instrumental in their underdog journey to pushing the Vegas Golden Knights to seven games in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
But, “that’s a small body, gentlemen.”
No disrespect to Brian Burke, he is — in this writer’s opinion — one of the best hockey minds around and has done tremendous work with the You Can Play project.
But it is time to put the size narrative to rest.
Not many prospects come around like Quinn Hughes or Cale Makar but that doesn’t mean that they have to be the outliers. The size bias affects more than just the NHL draft, it is seeded into the roots of a player’s development path at the youth level. How many smaller players may have been better suited as a defenceman but were told by their coaches that they were too small to play the position?
As the game moves further towards a speed and skill game, defenders that are elite on their edges and can make hyper-fast reads and decisions while providing offence through transition will be the top commodity. This is a tailwind for players traditionally thought of as being too small to play defence. Less emphasis will be placed on size and more will be placed on their ability to play in transition.
These playoffs showed that defencemen of Hughes’ build can be a true top-pairing defenceman and will surely impact the next generation of defenders. If it isn’t already, skating and skill blending will be the top priority for many younger players now. Obviously, more is needed than that but Hughes has provided a blueprint for smaller defencemen to not only carve out a role in the NHL but to be one of the best. Names like Seamus Casey in the 2022 draft, Jamie Drysdale this year, and Cam York last year are seeing that there is a role for them in the NHL and a pivotal one at that. Not to mention every other undersized minor hockey defenceman watching on their screens.
The era of the rover is upon us and Quinn Hughes has ushered in the modern two-way defenceman.