As the dream of a playoff spot fades from reality, Canucks fans will likely get a new shiny toy to play with this month – maybe even next week.
Having completed the regular season last Saturday, the Quinn Hughes watch is officially on. One of the most promising Canucks defence prospects ever, Hughes is expected to turn pro as soon as Michigan is eliminated from the playoffs – which could come as soon as this weekend.
With 33 points (5-28-33) in 30 games, the 19-year-old blueliner was his team’s leading scorer this season. The smooth-skating American was the bright light in an otherwise mediocre season for Michigan, who finished fifth out of seven teams in the Big 10, with a 9-10-5 record.
Michigan plays a best-of-three series in Minnesota this weekend, with games on Friday, Saturday, and if necessary, Sunday. Hughes’ team is the underdog, and has to play all three games on the road.
The plan for Hughes to turn pro after his NCAA season ends is the worst-kept secret in hockey. A late-season debut with the Canucks, just like Brock Boeser and Adam Gaudette before him, will be possible so long as Hughes’ team doesn’t make the Frozen Four – for which they are a long shot.
Hughes got a taste of what it’s like playing in Vancouver in January, with Team USA at the World Juniors.
“It’s a hockey city,” Hughes said at the time. “It definitely gets me excited for the future.”
Should Michigan be eliminated this weekend, Hughes could be in the Canucks’ lineup as soon as Wednesday’s home game against the New York Rangers. If that comes to fruition, the Canucks’ 2018 first-round pick could play in as many as 13 NHL games this season.
But Canucks management ought to be careful.
If he plays even just one NHL game, Hughes will burn the first year of his entry-level contract – something that hasn’t bothered management in the past with Boeser and Gaudette.
The much more pressing issue is Hughes’ eligibility for the Seattle expansion draft in 2021. Unlike the Vegas expansion draft in 2017, when the Canucks only had to sweat losing one of Luca Sbisa or Brendan Gaunce, they project to lose a more valuable asset in 2021.
If Hughes plays 11 or more games this season, he would be deemed a third-year player in 2021, and thus would take up a spot on the Canucks’ protected list. Junior and college players, as well as first and second-year pros, are exempt from the expansion process.
Given they’re only able to protect three defencemen (assuming they opt to protect three defencemen, seven forwards, and one goalie, as most teams will), it’s important that the Canucks keep Hughes to 10 games or fewer.
A lot can change between now and then, but Vancouver will likely want to protect Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher. Olli Juolevi, who will be 23 years old by that time, is also eligible.
Nikita Tryamkin has said that he’s open to a return to the Canucks, which could come as soon as the 2020-21 season. He too, would be eligible.
Should Hughes’ games be kept to 10 or fewer, this is how the Canucks’ protected list could look in two years:
Given that NHL teams don’t remain static, this list would certainly change before 2021. The Canucks could have a decision to make on Alex Edler at that time if he’s re-signed. Same goes for Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev if they’re extended, as well as any new free agent signings.