Canucks fans love Quinn Hughes. He is perhaps one of the most talented defencemen in Canucks history after only just three full seasons of play. From smooth edgework, dazzling passes, and incredible offensive instincts, Hughes is well on his way to being a centrepiece number one defenceman.
He isn’t perfect though. JFreshHockey recently released some analytical projections of how many hits a defenceman will dish out, and the results don’t exactly come as a surprise.
Here are the defencemen projected to throw the fewest hits per 60 minutes in the 2022-23 NHL season based on three seasons of (away-only) data: pic.twitter.com/qOdQimHzpy
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) August 8, 2022
Yeah, that’s Hughes bringing up the rear of the projected hits list. It comes after the usual critique that he’s just an offensive defenceman, a diminutive rearguard that doesn’t do much defending. This projection just adds fuel to the narrative that Hughes doesn’t do enough in his own zone.
But just because he’s not projected to throw hits doesn’t mean Hughes isn’t a good defender. Rather, it’s a good thing to hear that he’s not expected to hit a lot next season.
By its statistical definition, a hit is recorded if a player voluntarily initiates contact with another player possessing the puck, as well as the player sustaining contact losing the puck as a result of the hit. It’s one of the big reasons why not all physical contact is officially registered as a hit.
What it also means is that a lot of good defensive plays are not a reflection of how many hits a player throws around. This is where Hughes comes in, where his defence relies a lot more on his quick feet and hockey sense. As many Canuck fans are aware, Hughes is usually not the biggest player on the ice. His 5’10 stature puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to physicality in most situations.
But how he makes up for it is what helped him find his defensive game, particularly in this past season.
“I’m trying to round out my game and I’m tired of hearing that I’m just an offensive defenceman,” Hughes said back in December. “I’m not gonna be as good as some guys defensively, that’s the reality, but it’s something I can build into my game.”
His focus on the defensive details gave him opportunities on the penalty kill where he showed off a different type of grit. Hughes played the body, but not in big crunching hits. Rather, his stickwork and speed allowed him to stay with opposing players, poking at the puck and in general making life miserable for them.
Nathan MacKinnon gets mad at Quinn Hughes for playing defence and/or talking about his love of pasta. Either way, MacKinnon then cross-checks him from behind for no reason. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/h8TBCB1mf1
— Lachlan Irvine (@LachInTheCrease) March 24, 2022
In essence, the reason why Hughes is projected to throw the least hits in the entire NHL is because he simply doesn’t need to play that way. His brand of defence uses the tools that he has to disrupt attacking plays instead of laying out a bigger body.
Take how Hughes defends the rush, for instance. If he’s backchecking, more often than not he’ll be able to close the gap before knocking the puck off the forward’s stick. He’s playing to his strengths, rather than fitting a conventional mould of what a defenceman should play like.
Remember when scouts wondered whether Quinn Hughes would be able to defend in the NHL? pic.twitter.com/grciFTU9nu
— Harman Dayal (@harmandayal2) March 1, 2020
When he’s the lone defender back, Hughes will play it simple, forcing a decision to be made by taking away options. He’s also improved in winning battles on the boards after a disastrous 2020-21 season. But the common theme in all of these is that Hughes never really hits. He can take and initiate contact, but it won’t be registered as a hit statistic. And that’s okay, because he’s still playing his own brand of effective defence.
It’s also somewhat reassuring that Hughes isn’t projected to throw his weight around. With the injury bug that plagues this team with its never-ending torments, and with his stature already being on the smaller side, the risk of injury through contact events is already high enough for Hughes. Perhaps through not seeking out opportunities to throw hits, it will allow him to be healthy for much of the season.
These are themes many Canucks fans would have probably already seen through the three years Hughes has been in Vancouver. But right now, it’s especially important to highlight that just because he isn’t expected to hit a lot doesn’t mean that he isn’t a good defender, or that it’s a bad thing. In fact, it shows that he is effective in his own way, and could possibly be a blessing in disguise.
And who knows? It’s just a projection. For all we know, Hughes might go through his goon transformation and become the second coming of Scott Stevens.
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