In this Back To/The Future series, Chris Faber and Stephan Roget are making a collaborative effort to learn from the mistakes of the Vancouver Canucks’ recent past and offer solutions to salvage their immediate future — you know, just like Marty McFly did that one time. Each weekly Roget Reverse/Future Faber two-parter will start out with a critical look at some component of the Canucks’ game that went wrong in 2021, and finish by making some suggestions as to how it could get better in 2021/22. Whether you like to grumble about bad things that have already happened or dream about the good things yet to come, CanucksArmy has got what you need.
Folks, by the time you read this, we’ll be on the eve of the true offseason, a chaotic week-and-a-half that will see us through an Expansion Draft, an Entry Draft, and then a Free Agent Frenzy. As such, this is almost certainly our final edition of Back To/The Future for the summer, and so we wanted to focus on something that most would agree was the Canucks’ most concerning issue in 2021: the play of Quinn Hughes.
This time last year, fans were already anointing Hughes as the best defenseman in franchise history, and that’s not even hyperbole.
Flash forward one cruddy 2021 season, and you’ve got advocates to trade Hughes, those afraid of signing him long-term, and even some who will attest that Jack Rathbone is already the superior defender.
What the hell happened?
Yes, before we get into what exactly made Hughes’ sophomore season so shoddy, we’ve got the ask…
How bad was it?
On the one hand, Hughes’ offence stayed relatively consistent, dipping down a bit from his rookie PPG of 0.78 to a still very respectable 0.73. He finished tied for tenth in scoring among NHL defenders, a fair bit lower than his tie for fourth in 2019/20.
Hughes received three votes for the Norris Trophy last season, and zero this year.
It was, of course, Hughes’ play in his own end that really stood out in 2021, and not in a good way.
Only one other skater was on the ice for more even-strength goals against this past season than Hughes, and that was Brent Burns, who played an average of a minute-and-a-half more per game than Hughes.
Hughes’ on-ice even-strength goal differential of -22 was also second worst among NHL defenders, trailing only David Savard. It was only -7 in his rookie season, despite that season having 12 more games.
“But, wait!” you’re probably already frantically typing into the comment section. “Isn’t even-strength goal-differential just a fancy name for plus/minus, and isn’t plus/minus a horrendously flawed stat?”
You’re mostly right there, but context is always everything. The eye-test will tell Vancouver fans that they saw Hughes earn that -22 last season, often being not just present for, but complicit in goals against. This isn’t a situation where Hughes looks fine and the numbers disagree. Hughes’ stats reflect the struggles that are apparent for anyone to see.
“Hold up,” you’re still tap-tap-tapping away, “There are lots of good defenders on this list. Why do so many good defenders get scored on so often?”
Well, for some, like Burns, Erik Karlsson, Seth Jones, and Duncan Keith, the bitter truth is that they’re just not that good anymore, despite still being asked to eat big minutes.
For others, it’s all about context. A Darnell Nurse or a Jakob Chychrun or a David Savard (prior to trade), on the other hand, are playing night-in and night-out against the best lines in the league, and doing so on rosters that are generally defensively-porous.
And Hughes, too, plays big minutes on a defensively-porous roster, but his deployment is not that out a shutdown defender. Hughes starts nearly 70% of his shifts in the offensive zone, faces less quality of on-ice competition than the league-average skater, and still comes out of it bleeding goals against.
Dahlin looks to be in very much the same boat, but even here Hughes has advantages that Dahlin doesn’t, like a top-flite goaltender and some fairly defensively-responsible centers.
If it’s not his deployment, then, what is to blame for Hughes’ issues?
Was it the loss of Chris Tanev?
Given Chris Tanev’s resurgent debut season in Calgary, and Hughes’ simultaneous plunge, it’s very tempting to chalk it all up to the loss of a dedicated D-partner and father figure. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.
For one, Tanev’s play in 2021 absolutely constituted a rebound. His on-ice performance in Vancouver had deteriorated over his last couple of seasons, and most statistical models will reflect that he went from an average NHL defender to one of the league’s best this year.
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) May 25, 2021
Last season, however, the credit given to Tanev for anchoring Hughes was probably overdone. Hughes spent less than two-thirds of his even-strength ice-time alongside Tanev, and posted far better statistical results away from him, whether you be counting Corsi, actual goals against, or control of scoring chances.
Hughes had better results alongside Tyler Myers — of all people — including an equal amount of points in half as much time together.
But then, if it wasn’t the loss of an old partner…
Was it the quality of his new partners?
Hughes played major minutes with three different partners in 2021. Travis Hamonic led the pack by a mile, followed by Myers, and then the departed Jordie Benn.
From Dobber’s Frozen Tools
Here, Hughes’ results varied wildly.
With Benn and Hamonic, Hughes’ even-strength problems were kept at an even-keel, and he let in significantly fewer goals against at even strength than he did with Tanev the previous year.
Strangely enough, both Benn and Hamonic saw their even-strength possession stats crater when away from Hughes, while he began to drown in actual goals against away from them.
The success of the Hughes/Myers pairing in 2019/20 did not transfer over at all, with the pairing combining for 18 even-strength goals against in just 190 minutes of play. Hughes only notched one point while partnered with Myers. Their joint Expected Goals rate of 32.96% is downright garish.
If you really want to go hard on the Myers Blame Train, you might point out that a full -14 of Hughes’ -22 goal differential came from the 18% of his season in which he was paired with Myers (and another -3 from his disastrous 25 minutes alongside Jalen Chatfield).
It should be noted, however, that while both achieved better statlines while away from the other, the swing was more noticeably positive for Myers away from Hughes. And it should be noted that Hughes still let in 43 even-strength goals while skating with non-Myers partners, too.
Myers’ own chaotic second season in Vancouver, then, would seem to bear part, but nowhere near all of the responsibility for Hughes’ sophomore slumping.
Was it a change in the quality of competition?
This one will be relatively easy to answer.
Hughes faced way tougher competition in 2019/20 than he did in 2021. His QoC was actually a bit above league-average as a rookie, but not so as a sophomore. He also started more of his shifts in the defensive zone as a rookie.
Could it be the strength of the North Division? Facing Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Auston Matthews that often couldn’t have been easy.
The North Division was the highest-scoring division on average if one takes out the Canucks, but not dramatically so. Hughes did come out of his even-strength encounters with Draisaitl, McDavid, and Matthews as a -6, explaining a fair chunk of that goal differential.
But Hughes still handled such competition a lot better in 2019/20, and, again, fans saw what they saw, which was Hughes getting turnstiled on the regular by a lot of players not named McDavid or Matthews. So, we still need an answer as to why he got so much worse, regardless of the competition…
Was it the extenuating circumstances of the season?
The short answer is “of course, obviously!” but the longer, more honest answer is that we’ll never know to what extent the many extenuating circumstances of the 2021 season had on Hughes, and it’s rather pointless to speculate.
Still, it deserves mention.
It started with the shortest offseason of his hockey-playing career, and offseason occurring in the midst of a global pandemic. An offseason in which Hughes had to recover from the first full(ish) season of his NHL career, a season that included a lengthy playoff run inside a bubble. An offseason that saw the departure of mentors like Tanev and Jacob Markstrom.
Then came a bizarre, but not unpleasant Canada-only schedule, though one that probably kept Hughes from his usual level of familial support. Then came the Canucks’ multiple COVID incidents themselves, one of which included Hughes contracting the virus and suffering its ill effects.
All that, and Hughes’ agent was negotiating his first post-ELC contract behind the scenes.
Hughes had a lot going on in 2021, but it’s still not quite enough to explain how he became one of the worst even-strength defenders in the league…
Okay, so what was it?
We all know it, so we’ll just come out and say it.
Hughes didn’t play as well in 2021 as he did in 2019/20. In fact, he played bad.
The stats only back up what the eye-test is telling us. Hughes hasn’t lost any skill. He’s still one of the smoothest-skating players in the league, and he’s capable of getting wherever he needs to go in whatever amount of time he needs to get there. It’s deciding where to go and what to do when he arrives that seems to be the issue.
Gone is the unbridled confidence of rookie Hughes. He’d make mistakes as a rookie, sure, but more often than not he’d rush back to strip an opponent who was seemingly free and clear, or skate the puck out of danger with a clever little ankle-breaker.
Sophomore Hughes looked tentative. He looked to be constantly second-guessing where he was supposed to be on the ice, and never quite finding his way there. Half-hearted efforts to juke forecheckers in his own zone led to turnovers, and that led to goals against. Gap control should never be an issue for someone who skates like Hughes, and yet he often left opponents out of reach in dangerous scoring zones.
Hughes’ confidence suffered in 2021, his decision-making followed, and everything else just fell apart from there.
Worse, in the hyper-condensed schedule that was, there was no time to stop and reset.
Worse, he still had to eat up a bunch of minutes, and there were plenty of opponents ready and willing to exploit that.
Worse, Chris Tanev wasn’t there to help settle him down.
Worse, Tyler Myers was.
The good news is that a lot of those mitigating factors won’t be quite so prevalent in 2021/22.
The bad news is that Hughes’ own play was still to blame, and perhaps primarily so, for his awful on-ice results in 2021.
Which leaves us all wondering…
Is it going to get better?
Hey, folks, you know how this works right now, so we won’t even beat around the bushy-bearded fellow.
Of course, Quinn Hughes going to get better. 2021 was rock-bottom. Everything’s going to get better from here.
You just have to wait until tomorrow for Chris Faber to tell you how.