The Big Hronek Question: How much of Quinn Hughes’ ascension was due to his partner, and how much was just timing?

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
24 days ago
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The Vancouver Canucks pretty much have to be satisfied with Quinn Hughes’ performance in the 2023/24 season.
And, consequently, they have to be satisfied with the performance of the Hughes/Filip Hronek pairing. After all, the two did spend the vast majority of their time together this past year. Whatever Hughes accomplished, he did while beside Hronek. But what any good scientist will tell you, and many bad scientists will not, is that correlation does not equal causation.
Thus, as the Canucks try to figure out what to do with Hronek, a pending RFA rumoured to be asking for a salary on his next contract as high as $8 million per season, that is really the big question that they need to answer in-house:
How much of Hughes’ ascension was due to his partner, and how much of it was just timing?
There’s no doubt that Hughes took a massive step forward this season. He more than doubled his previous career high in goals with 17 and upped his career high in assists to 75 for a total of 92 points, pacing all NHL defenders. He did so while skating 24:41 a night, the tenth-highest average in the league.
And just to cut off all those old defensive question marks off at the pass, let’s also note that Hughes was on the ice for 108 even-strength goals for and just 67 against for a differential of +41, the fourth-highest in the NHL.
In a month’s time, it will be a downright shock if Hughes doesn’t walk home from the NHL Awards Night with the Norris Trophy tucked under his arm.
So, yeah, Hughes played better this past season than he ever had before, and by a longshot. And, yes, he did so while sharing approximately 75% of his even-strength ice-time with Hronek.
Hronek, for what it’s worth, also had a career season, setting new highs with 43 assists and 48 points. There’s little doubt at this point that Hronek is the most talented partner Hughes has ever played with, and there’s also little doubt that the two possess chemistry, or that the partnership was a net positive for Hughes.
But, like we said at the outset, the question at hand is not whether Hronek is a good partner for Hughes, or even the best available to the Canucks right now. The former is a ‘yes,’ and the latter probably is, too.
No, the question at hand, before the Canucks consider handing Hronek an enormous pay increase, is the degree to which Hronek was responsible for Hughes’ 2023/24 ascension. Because if there’s one thing that’s not in question, it’s that the Canucks are going to need Hughes to keep performing about this well if they’re going to keep their window of contention open. That part isn’t up for debate.
It’s the Hronek part that is optional.
Hughes turned 24 at the outset of this past season. Entering his prime years, there was always a likelihood that Hughes was going to improve to some extent this year. That’s, perhaps, just a natural age- and experience-based progression.
The Hronek partnership obviously helped. But so too did being part of a stronger blueline in general, thanks to the additions of players like Ian Cole, Carson Soucy, and, in time, Nikita Zadorov.
Hughes also quite obviously benefitted from head coach Rick Tocchet putting his stamp on the team. ‘Structure’ was a buzzword this season, and Hughes clearly fit well within the overall defensive structure put in place by Tocchet and his staff.
To attempt to separate and isolate the impact of Hronek here, we’ve got to dig into the stats a little. NaturalStatTrick’s Line Tool helps here, and it tells us some surprising things about the pairing. Namely, that according to the numbers, Hughes actually performed better away from Hronek this season than with him.
It’s true. With Hronek through 1183 even-strength minutes, Hughes posted a 56.44% Corsi, a 53.90% xGF%, a 56.53% control of scoring chances, and a 51.19% control of high-danger chances in particular. At 5v5, the pairing was on the ice for 72 goals for and 46 against. These are all excellent numbers…but they’re each a fair bit lower than what Hughes put together away from Hronek.
Hughes minus Hronek, in 357 minutes (just under a third of their total together) posted a 59.63% Corsi, a 57.95% xGF%, a 61.95% control of scoring chances, and a 64.66% control of high-danger chances in particular. He was on the ice at 5v5 for 20 goals for and only 9 against.
In each category, Hughes seems better off without Hronek. Conversely, Hronek without Hughes posts a 43.87% Corsi, a 44.86% xGF%, a 46.03% control of scoring chances, and a 44.63% control of high-danger chances.
That’s a considerable drop-off.
It’s probably worth mentioning here that “Hughes without Hronek” typically meant Hughes with either Tyler Myers or Noah Juulsen, or occasionally with one of Cole or Soucy on their off-side. “Hronek without Hughes” typically meant Hronek with Cole, Soucy, or Zadorov on their natural side.
As such, it’s pretty easy to conclude which of the two partners had more of a positive impact on the other, and it’s Hughes, but then we could have guessed that coming in. These numbers would also seem to indicate that it was Hughes himself who had more to do with Hughes’ ascension this season than his partner, but then numbers can’t always be taken at face value.
Consider that the minutes played by the Hughes/Hronek pairing were against harder competition than the two faced separately. Many of Hughes’ Hronek-less minutes came on double-shifts, sometimes against inferior opponents.
By that same token, however, we must mention that the Hughes/Hronek pairing started some 64.58% of their 5v5 shifts in the offensive zone, whereas Hughes on his own started just 42.58% of his shifts there. Hughes/Hronek may have been playing harder minutes, but they also played more opportune ones.
Perhaps the clearest answer can be found in the other primary narrative surrounding Hronek in the wake of 2023/24, which is his tale of two seasons. Hronek started incredibly strong, and then faded all the way to a two-point playoff run. His regular season split looks like this: 23 points in the first quarter, 13 in the second, 9 in the third, and just 3 in the fourth. A definitive downward trend.
Hughes also started strong, with 33 points in his first quarter, no doubt at least partly the result of Hronek’s own hot start. But then Hughes got 19 points in the second quarter, 19 in the third, and 21 in the fourth.
In other words, as Hronek’s effectiveness dwindled, Hughes’ did not. The clearest proof that what Hughes did in 2023/24 was become a better player, more so than found a better partner, can be found in the lack of drop-off in his own performance when said partner started to tank.
Sure, Hronek still played a role, and in the grand scheme of things, Hughes is probably still better off with him than without him. But GM Patrik Allvin and Co. should be able to look at these results and bet that, should Hronek price himself out of a reasonable contract extension, Hughes could probably achieve similar results with a different, even lesser, partner.
That, as we said, is the big question that needs to be answered as the team continues negotiations – or doesn’t – with Hronek. And, as always, it seems best to bet on Hughes over anyone else.
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