When Quinn Hughes signed his six-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on October 3, seven days after team’s first pre-season game, fans expected to see one of two versions of the defenceman in the 2021–22 season.
Either Hughes was going to snap back to his regular rookie season production or burn off his first year of a new contract trying to kickstart a sputtering engine.
Thankfully, it wasn’t the latter.
Bouncing back from a difficult season after having COVID-19 was going to be challenging enough for the 22-year-old. Beyond that, his protracted contract negotiations meant Hughes had only a couple of pre-season games and no training camp to get him prepared for the start of the season.
Nevertheless, Hughes’ brief pre-season turned out to be extremely indicative of the rest of his 2021–22 campaign. Hughes finished his first exhibition game with a goal and an assist on the power play, picking up another point in his second pre-season contest.
By the end of the year, Hughes had tied his career-high mark in goals, with eight. Ask him, though, and he’ll say he’s only scratching the surface of what he can do.
“The one thing I think I can improve on is scoring,” Hughes said during his end-of-season availability. “I missed a whole lot of opportunities to change the course of a game. I think if I can score five to 10 more goals, that can really help.”
Hughes led all Canucks defencemen in goal-scoring and barely eked out Oliver Ekman-Larsson for the team lead in total five-on-five expected goals, with 6.8 (according to Evolving-Hockey).
All eight of Hughes’ goals were scored at even strength. If he can pick up a few more goals on the power play, as he did in his rookie year, Hughes could reach double digits for the first time in his career next season.
Being able to lead the team for goals while only having eight doesn’t hold much weight when other defencemen, like Colorado Avalanche superstar Cale Makar, are pushing the 30-goal mark.
In Hughes’ case, it isn’t so much about being a 30-goal scorer, as it is about being the difference-maker between picking up one or two points.
“We lost 12 OT/shootout games,” Hughes said. “I think I can score one or two more in there.”
Goals aside, this season was an all-time offensive high point for Hughes. He toppled the Canucks records for most assists and points in a season by a defenceman and came within just two points of 70 on the year after a three-game point streak at the end of April.
Hughes and Elias Pettersson also entered new territory with extended time on the penalty kill under head coach Bruce Boudreau. The 22-year-old defenceman referred to this accomplishment as his proudest moment of the season, alongside his plus/minus.
“Me and Petey want to help the team win,” Hughes said. “To be given the trust and be put in those spots means a lot.”
Hughes also echoed similar sentiments to his teammates about the confidence Boudreau has instilled in the group since his arrival in early December.
“He is really competitive and wants to win. I thoroughly enjoyed playing for him, he was fun to play for.”
This season may have been a stepping stone for the young defenceman, but it still doesn’t help to eliminate the sour taste of watching other teams have a chance at winning the Stanley Cup.
“Guys aren’t happy to be in this situation right now,” Hughes said. “We are proud of ourselves for the way we battled back the last four months, but it really doesn’t mean anything if we aren’t playing for a cup in the playoffs. Going into next season, we truly believe we can start the way we finished.”
Entering his fourth full season in the NHL, there is more than just production on Hughes’ mind.
Fans got a glimpse of this during his last Championship Belt speech when he mentioned the team cultivating a winning culture while they were late in their playoff push.
“Bruce has encouraged it and even older guys,” Hughes said about stepping into a leadership role on the team. “I think I can be a better leader and I need to keep improving on that. I’m still 22. I think we are still trying to learn and get there. We will find our way next year.”
With management focused on getting younger, Hughes may find himself in an advisory role for upcoming Abbotsford talent like Jack Rathbone.
Hughes is just one of a few key players whose career seasons kept the Canucks alive down the stretch. With Hughes still in his early 20s and five years remaining on his contract, management will have the team’s No. 1 defenceman locked down while they try to iron out the contracts of the next batch of UFAs and RFAs this offseason.
Based on the year-end availabilities from their young drafted talent, including Pettersson and Brock Boeser, the time is now for the Canucks to cement themselves as a legitimate playoff team.
“I want to win,” Hughes said. “I want our culture to keep improving and growing and our accountability to be high.”
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