Like waves crashing against the shores of Spanish Banks, Michael Ferland persistently laid bodycheck after bodycheck on Vancouver’s 2015 defence corp to great effect. In addition to the mental toll that the Calgary forward’s physical game evoked, a glaring weakness in Vancouver’s blue line was exposed. The group could not transport the puck fast enough to handle the tremendous forechecking pressure of Ferland and the rest of the Calgary Flames. Their inability to safely transfer possession of the puck to Vancouver’s forwards was costly in a six-game series that ended in defeat.
The 2015 season concluded with the Chicago Blackhawks hoisting their third Stanley Cup in five seasons. In contrast to Vancouver’s blue line, Chicago’s was led by a Conn Smythe trophy winner; a fluid skating workhorse that could move the puck in quick transition and impact the game in every area. Duncan Keith showcased in those Stanley Cup Finals how an elite two-way defenceman could immensely influence and tilt the ice to his team’s advantage.
One of the bridges to Vancouver’s past, Chris Tanev, is now a leader on Vancouver’s current blue line, which has finally seen an influx of youth. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver’s super-rookie, All-star, and Tanev’s defence partner, is a bit like Keith in his younger days. Hughes’ game is built upon a combination of skating mastery and hockey sense which allows him to make an impact every time he sets foot on the ice. The rookie’s lightning-quick processing power combined with his skill with the puck and incredible skating agility is a massive boon to Vancouver from a macro perspective. These skills allow him to defend against speed from the rush, escape forechecking pressure, and initiate counter-attacks with control.
To hear Chris Tanev tell it, “playing with Quinn is really fun. You’re sprinting to open ice, moving to different spots and in so many different places because he’s so elusive that he tends to beat the first forechecker. So you get yourself in a position where you can help him make a quick play. You get up the ice really quick.”
Questions surrounded Quinn Hughes heading into his first NHL season examining his ability to defend against men. Could he overcome the height and strength disadvantages that were labeled to his profile?
Through 49 games, Hughes has shrugged off those concerns, much like he shrugs off NHL forecheckers on a nightly basis by pulling on their strings.
Hughes excels when defending oncoming rushes. His elite edgework enables him to stick to attacking forwards like glue while maintaining a suffocating gap. Against some of the NHL’s fastest and most talented players, Hughes is often in the driver’s seat, controlling the rush with smart stick placement. Below is a supercut of Hughes facing off against the likes of Mitch Marner, Johnny Gaudreau, William Nylander, and more physically dominant players like Kyle Palmieri. These are strong skating, supremely talented forwards that Hughes defends phenomenally. For starters, watch how his feet and edges allow him to stay square with the attacking forwards while transitioning between forwards and backwards skating. The next layer to his defence is his stick that takes away space and forces players towards the outside. Hughes’ stick is constantly eliminating options for the opposition and when paired with the tight gap that he maintains with his skating, Hughes is extremely effective at shutting down a rush.
Where Quinn Hughes arguably provides his greatest value is when he has the puck in transition. As displayed in Vancouver’s 2015 playoff series, the ability to calmly and consistently transport the puck out of the defensive zone with possession is crucial for success. It may be the most important aspect of the modern-day defenceman’s game. So much emphasis is placed upon transition play as the game has gotten exponentially younger, faster, and skilled. What Vancouver has in Hughes is essential to their success as Hughes is already one of the league’s best at moving the puck safely from one end of the ice to the other through multiple means.
The defenceman’s confidence to hold on to pucks and evade forechecking pressure is worth the price of admission. Against Matthieu Perrault and the Winnipeg Jets, Hughes spins away from pressure in the corner and surveys his options from below the Canucks’ goal line. A subtle hesitation move catches Perrault hook, line, and sinker. The Jets’ forward bites and chases Hughes behind the net, signaling to Hughes that he has the green light to skate the puck away from pressure on the opposite side of the net.
Hughes is a master manipulator, a puppeteer that can pull on the strings of opposing players. The above was one of many ways that he uses his body language to move players around the ice like chess pieces, enabling the rookie to be one-step ahead. Below is another example of his subtleties. Hughes retrieves the puck in the corner with a Red Wings forward pressuring. As Hughes takes possession of the puck, he sells a reverse pass around the boards to the opposite wing. Before he gains control of the puck, he fakes the reverse with his head and hands. It’s a small detail, but an integral one. The clear evidence of this deception is seen when watching the Detroit forward falls for the fake and throws himself against the boards to intercept the puck. In this sequence, Hughes has given us a masterclass in creating space in tight situations, as he is free to send the puck to Jake Virtanen with plenty of room.
As good as he’s been this year, he still has some flaws to iron out. He is still just 20-years-old and his youthful confidence can get him into trouble. Most often, alarms arise when Hughes has been out on the ice for extended periods of time. Hughes’ habitual skating deception is obviously one of his strongest attributes, but he can be over reliant on it at times. For example, in this sequence from late in the second period against the Coyotes, Hughes and his partner have been stuck out on the ice for over a minute due to the long change. Quinn receives the puck with pressure in his own zone and attempts to spin off the Coyotes player. However, nothing is left in the tank and what is normally a crisp tight-turn is actually a slow turn into danger.
Another 1000 words could be written about Hughes’ invaluable contributions on the power-play or his tape-to-tape passing but Hughes’ use of his stick and body language to manipulate opposing players also deserve recognition as they are world-class. The rookie two-way defenceman is a key piece to the puzzle and the value that he has brought to the Vancouver Canucks will be pivotal to their post-season efforts. Rather than eroding to the waves, Hughes has the ability to part them.