Quickness has always been the ticket to patience, productivity and potential for Quinn Hughes.
The fleet-footed Vancouver Canucks captain relies on an innate ability to read and react with superlative split-second decisions at both ends of the ice. And that could add another dimension to his impressive minutes munching and multi-dimensional game with increased goals.
Hughes has relentlessly worked on his shot for velocity and accuracy to get it through a maze of legs from the point. However, the art of deception is another weapon in his arsenal to create better looks down low.
Improved strength allowed Hughes to muscle home a wrist shot for the opening goal Saturday in Florida, with Elias Pettersson providing the screen at the top of the crease. The blueliner also executed a quick shift-and-scurry move to the net and almost picked the high short side from a sharp angle.
Hughes slammed his stick in disgust because he had the Panthers prone with the timely trek to the net during a 5-3 victory that improved the Canucks’ record to 3-2-0.
Through his first five games, Hughes has five points (1-4), was third in shots among blueliners with 18, had a whopping 44 shot attempts — he has hit double digits in three outings — and was second in league plus-minute rating at plus-6.
However, Hughes has yet to reach double-digits in goals. His NHL career high of eight came in his 2019-20 rookie season and again in 2021-22. Last season, he had seven goals.
“Walking the blue-line and shooting, he’s got a couple of moves he worked on in the summer,” revealed Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet. “He worked on them a lot. He was on the ice a lot and worked on them more than people realize. They are a couple of things.”
Those “things” are top secret because Tocchet doesn’t want to alert the opposition in pre-scouts.
“I’m not going to tell you, but stuff that’s world class,” he added.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that Canucks assistant coach Sergei Gonchar has had an impact because Hughes was anxious to work with the former standout defenceman.
Gonchar’s book of work can add to the total player package.
In the 1998-99 season with the Washington Capitals, Gonchar became the first Russian defenceman to score 20 goals. He followed up his 21 goals that campaign by reaching the 50-point plateau the following season with 54.
He would establish career highs in goals (26) and points (67) in a season and hit the 50-point mark eight times.
The will to constantly improve has only increased Tocchet’s appreciation of Hughes, who is once again is logging major minutes and never complains. He has played 21:38, 25:32, 25:58, 26:19 and 25:30 to start this season in a pairing with savvy veteran Filip Hronek, which also triggers more offensive potential.
“And also when he defends, it’s with quickness and it’s OK. You can still win a Norris Trophy by defending with quickness and you don’t have to kill people in the corner.
“I’m not trying to put pressure on him because he defends well, but his capability of walking the blue-line is outstanding. Huggy has a little chip on his shoulder that he can’t defend. I like that. If we can, he’s out there the last minute of every period.”
Hughes has a team best Corsi For percentage of 54.7 at even strength, which means the Canucks are controlling the puck more with him on the ice. In one pre-season prediction ranking, he was actually projected to have less points than last season.
The manner in which Hughes prepares in the off-season sets him apart. He’s pushed by his siblings — Jack Hughes had 10 points (4-6) in his first four games with the New Jersey Devils, while rookie rearguard Luke Hughes scored his first NHL goal — and at the U.S. National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Mich.
That’s where on-ice instruction and off-ice strength and conditioning have added more muscle and stamina. And it’s never just fun scrimmages in the summer. It has always been a means to first improve defensively and have it transition to offence.
“The majority of it is just a mindset, not wanting people to score on you, defending hard and not making it easy,” Hughes told Postmedia. “I work on a bunch of different things like backward skating and practising against (brother) Jack, Kyle Connor, (Andrew) Copp and (Trevor) Zegras and really good players.
“Those guys made me better. When we would do 3-on-3’s and guys would worry about playing offence, I would defend for the whole 20 minutes and not doing anything offensively. I tried to focus on that to get better at poke-checking and pickpocketing sticks.”
‘You can’t get too high or too low’
The Canucks held a 45-minute spirited practice Sunday in Nashville in advance of Tuesday’s test against the Predators to close out a five-game road trip.
As expected, Tocchet kept the upbeat mood in perspective.
“You can’t get too high or too low and that’s really the message for me,” he stressed. “You want the guys to have fun. We have a day off (Monday) and I’m really anxious to see how we play.
“It’s our play through the neutral zone. We’re allowing too many shots. Guys are skating backwards when we should press up. We don’t want to back off when we have the lead and we have to shake off that mindset.
“We’re chipping away at it.”
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