The Vancouver Canucks have strung together three straight terrible seasons, and with all due respect to new free-agent signings Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel, they aren’t likely to be very good next season either.
Luckily, though, there is some talent in the system that’s worth getting excited about.
A Calder Trophy finalist this past season, Brock Boeser gave the Canucks’ power play a huge boost already. The prospect of having him and 2017 first-round pick Elias Pettersson on opposite sides for the man advantage is without a doubt a fantastic start.
And finally, the Canucks may have added a major piece that’s been missing for a long time: a power-play quarterback. Quinn Hughes, who fell to the Canucks at the draft last month, has the ability to help the team in more ways than one.
1. The regroup
The Canucks’ power play had some major issues going into the 2017-18 season. While it did improve massively, with the team finishing ninth in the league with a 21.5% success rate, there were still aspects that need to be improved – starting with breakouts.
Part of Vancouver’s struggles were due to questionable breakout strategies. However, a lack of puck-moving talent on the backend contributed as well.
With Hughes, that is bound to change.
Hughes is an outstanding skater, who combines speed and elusiveness to escape pressure and carry the puck with ease. At times during the 2018 World Junior Championship, Hughes was a one-man breakout machine for Team USA.
He picks up the puck and away he goes, making it look easy.
What makes Hughes special, however, is his ability to read the game and make plays at high speed. There are many players who can skate with the puck, but it takes special hockey sense and puck skills to keep up with one’s feet and be aware of what’s going on.
2. Setting up in formation
Another major struggle for the Canucks was getting set up in the offensive zone. It’s one thing to be able to regroup and skate the puck out of the defensive zone and perhaps even across the offensive blue line.
But what’s next?
Hughes does an excellent job in this aspect as well. Thanks to his vision and awareness, he sees his teammates and knows where they are, even if he skates straight past them at first. With his elite agility and ability to pull of tight turns, he can then create space for himself and make a play with the puck.
Of course, NHL teams do a much better job shutting down the neutral zone and attacking the puck-carrier behind the defensive blue line. NHLers are bigger, quicker, and smarter than junior players, so getting past them won’t be as easy.
But, Hughes has the kind of elite skating ability paired with puck skills that will give him an edge even at the highest level.
3. Offensive-zone play
Thinking about the Canucks’ power-play struggles in past years, most fans are unlikely to bring up the regroup as the biggest issue. Rather, it’s the continuous failure to get into and, once there, create danger from a 1-3-1 setup in the offensive zone.
Quarterbacked by the likes of Alex Edler and Michael Del Zotto, the power play lacked flash and creativity from the blue line.
Hughes is here to change that.
Just like on the rush, Hughes profits mightily from his elite skating and vision. His big strength is the Canucks’ biggest flaw: creating offensive-zone movement, forcing the penalty-killing unit to move with him.
In doing so, he draws opponents out of position, creating space not only for himself but also for his teammates.
The most successful power-play units in hockey are those that are able to move around and shift constantly, making D-zone coverage an extremely difficult task.
Hughes brings a much-needed dynamic element to the Canucks.
He can walk the blue line, dish out passes, and – while his shots are not the most powerful – get pucks through to the net.
It is difficult to predict if Hughes will spend the 2017-18 season in Vancouver.
Aside from restricted free agent Troy Stecher, the Canucks have their entire 2017-18 defence group under contract for next season – that is eight players. If they decide 2016 first-round pick Olli Juolevi is ready for a shot in the NHL as well, Hughes will have to push one of the veterans out of their spots.
Of course, Hughes would be eligible to play in the AHL as well. But will he leave college to play with the Utica Comets? Seems unlikely.
Agent Pat Brisson and #Canucks GM Jim Benning spoke today about 7th pick Quinn Hughes turning pro. Each side will discuss what’s best for D-man’s development, and they’ll try to agree on a decision within a week.
— Iain MacIntyre (@imacSportsnet) July 3, 2018
But no matter when Hughes joins the Canucks, he promises to give the team a significant boost on the backend, especially on the power play.