Quinn Hughes among impressive young core leading upstart Canucks into new season
21-year-old defenceman recorded 53 points during unusual rookie campaign
It's hard for Quinn Hughes to believe he's entering just his second NHL season.
"We technically have had three [training] camps, one at the start of last year, one before the bubble and this being the third," said the Vancouver Canuck defenceman. "It does kind of feel like my third year a bit."
The 21-year-old Hughes joins forwards Elias Pettersson, 22, Bo Horvat, 25, and Brock Boeser, 23, plus goaltender Thatcher Demko, 25, as the core of a Canuck team that opened training camp this week hoping to build off a successful playoff run last summer.
"We took a step last season," said Hughes, who was picked seventh overall by Vancouver in the 2018 NHL draft. "For us, there's an excitement that we just have to keep going."
Hughes experienced an unusual rookie season. He had played 68 games and established himself as a Calder Trophy candidate by leading all rookies with 53 points and 45 assists before the NHL shut down March 12 due to concerns over COVID-19.
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He showed no signs of rust when the NHL resumed for the playoffs in the Edmonton bubble in August. Hughes collected 14 assists and 16 points in 17 games, both records for a rookie defenceman in a single postseason.
"It was a strange year for everyone," said Hughes, who finished second to Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar in rookie-of-the-year voting. "I felt like I got a full rookie year since we played 68 games. Dealing with the bubble was strange to finish off my year, then come to this.
"It's definitely different, but it's different for everyone."
'He shows a lot of maturity'
Veteran Vancouver defenceman Tyler Meyers had a front-row seat watching Hughes grow and adapt to the NHL.
"He was such a good player to even start out the year last year," Meyers said. "The things you see with him, he developed a consistency you don't see too often in young guys, especially for his age.
Head coach Travis Green said Hughes has just begun scratching the surface of his potential.
"There are little things in his game that we've talked to him about where he can be a little bit stronger, a little bit better," Green said. "With all young players a lot of it will just come from a natural progression of being in the league, understanding the league, understanding systems.
"He's going to be a better, stronger player as he matures. He's going to improve in areas just from teaching and learning."
Avoiding the sophomore slump
Pettersson, the 2019 Calder Trophy winner, knows the challenges Hughes might face in his second season.
"My second year they knew who I was," Pettersson said. "I was getting more attention.
"I think Quinn was already getting that attention last season, especially in the playoffs. He's a smart player. He learns fast and he learns quick."
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The Canucks last played Sept. 4, when they lost in the seventh game of their second-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights. Hughes took advantage of the long break.
"I know I got stronger," he said. "I took six or seven weeks off the ice and I just tried to get my body right, get stronger and use that time to get better at some things I usually don't have the time to do."
Hughes spent most of last year partnered with veteran Chris Tanev, a physical defensive defenceman. He must adapt to a new partner this season after Tanev signed as a free agent with the Calgary Flames.
Besides Tanev, the Canucks also lost goaltender Jacob Markstrom, forwards Tyler Toffoli and Josh Leivo; and defencemen Oscar Fantenberg and Troy Stecher to free agency.
It's been suggested losing these players could hurt the Canucks this season. Hughes views the loss as an opportunity.
The Canucks open their season Wednesday in Edmonton against the Oilers. They will play the shortened 56-game schedule in the all-Canadian Scotia North Division. Their first home game will be Jan. 20 when they begin a three-game series against Montreal.
Playing the entire regular season against Canadian teams means Hughes won't face his younger brother Jack, a forward picked first overall by the New Jersey Devils in 2019.
The two worked out together during the offseason.
"We had a good offseason and really pushed each other," Quinn said. "We made it fun.
"I probably won't miss him [this season]. I'm 0-3 against him so we will just let that one slide."