When it was announced that Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes, the seventh overall draft pick in last summer’s NHL Draft by the Vancouver Canucks, would be returning to Michigan this season for his sophomore year, he immediately became one of the favorites to win this year’s Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey’s best player/most compelling narrative combination.
13 games into Michigan’s season, some of that hype seems to have faded a bit. Hughes is producing, as expected. He has three goals and 12 assists in 13 games, for a 1.15 pts/gm average. That currently ranks tied for sixth nationally among defensemen, though if he maintains that number throughout the season, it would be better than any defenseman in college hockey in the past six seasons. But overall, it’s been a rather disappointing start for the Wolverines. Coming off last year’s (admittedly suprising) Frozen Four run, the Wolverines came into the season ranked fourth in the nation and receiving a pair of first places in the USCHO Preseason Poll; though to be fair, that poll places much more emphasis on the previous year’s single elimination NCAA tournament results than any sort of meaningful analysis of the season ahead. But the Wolverines have slogged out to a 6-5-2 start to the season, and while they’re still in a position to make the NCAA Tournament with a strong late-season push, like they did last year, it’s hardly a guarantee that they’ll be back in the national tournament mix this year.
So that’s the big picture view. To get a better idea of the more narrow view, I watched Hughes play on November 23rd, at Michigan’s Yost Arena in a Big Ten conference game against the University of Wisconsin. Here were my thoughts.
We’ll start with the good, And with Hughes, the good is world-class. Obviously any scouting report on Hughes is going to talk about his elite skating ability. But what does that mean in terms of tangible on-ice results? To me, it shows up in two key areas that really make him an effective player with the puck on his stick.
The first is his ability with the puck in the neutral zone. One of the big concerns I had with Hughes back when he was playing with the NTDP was that when he’d end up with the puck in those situations, and would rely on his hands to try to make a deke around the F1 forward, an extremely dangerous play as the last defenseman back. Now, with a quick stop and change of direction, Hughes has the ability to simply outskate the player checking him. He can go from 0-60 while the other guy is still stuck at 30. I mean:
Quinn Hughes is bananas, here he is toying with the Wisconsin forechecker for yet another controlled exit and entry. I'm nearly through tracking the second period and he's exiting the zone with control 85% of the time, this is a number you never see at any level. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/9QF81C0Qwk— Darryl Keeping (@dkeeping) November 26, 2018
From there, with the first guy beat and Hughes at nearly full speed, it’s almost a guaranteed zone entry with him either skating the puck into the zone, or able to find a teammate for zone entry. Here’s another, because they are fun:
How confident do you have to be to even try such things? I'm so happy and still can't believe my boy Quinn Hughes dropped to 7th overall.— Darryl Keeping (@dkeeping) November 26, 2018
For those following along, he's somehow climbed to 88% for controlled exits vs. Wisconsin last night. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/jbmrnTo7q7
The other area this really shows up is when he gets the puck at the point in the offensive zone. Again, it’s his powerful first step and smooth edgework that is driving things. The ability to start, stop, and change directions when he gets the puck at the blue line makes it almost impossible for a defender to stay in front of him.
This opens up a lot of options offensively. Theoretically, it should open shooting lanes for him, though Hughes doesn’t seem to use his shot as much as he maybe could. The other thing it does is break down the defense and open up cross-ice passing lanes. I counted fives times Hughes was able to make a clean cross-ice pass to a teammate in the offensive zone. With a roughly 22% plurality of goals at the NHL level coming off plays where the puck crosses the midline of the ice, that’s an insanely valuable skill. He picked up a secondary assist in Saturday night’s game making that type of play. That’s generating a lot of points for him this year, and honestly, I think his assist totals would be even higher if he was playing with more talented, NHL-caliber teammates.
Most of the downsides come on the defensive end. Whether it was being slow to anticipate or just laziness, twice on Friday he let an offensive player get a step on him and Hughes had to resort to just taking a whack at the guy with his stick. The second time, early in the third period, resulted in a costly slashing penalty. He’s also not a guy that is going to spend a lot of time in the corners in the defensive zone, and when he does, he’s rarely coming out with the puck. But these are mostly minor inconveniences any team would happily trade off to get a guy that is practically guaranteed to move the puck out of the zone, through the neutral zone, and into the other team’s end when he gets possession of it, and is an elite offensive player that can set up teammates in dangerous scoring positions frequently.
All in all, there’s little reason to expect the Quinn Hughes hype train to slow down. Whether a so-so season by Michigan tanks his chances at a Hobey Baker or not, Hughes is one of, if not the best player in college hockey and is a more than deserving candidate. He’ll likely be our top overall NHL prospect in college hockey this season, give-or-take Cale Makar.
Having Hughes available for the World Juniors this year is a huge boost for the United States. With the depth of this year’s group looking a little shaky, he’ll be counted on to play big minutes and really carry the team. The hope is that he can drive a little extra offense from the blue line to help that group as well.
After that, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hughes make his NHL debut with the Canucks within a day or two of whenever Michigan’s season ends. He might have been iffy to be a full-time NHL player this season, but by next fall, he should be a regular with the Canucks, and on his way to being a potential franchise defenseman.