Roman Josi thought for a moment.
During the NHL North American Player Media Tour in Las Vegas on Sept. 16, the Nashville Predators defenseman was asked to name the most under-appreciated player in the NHL.
Josi called the Vancouver Canucks defenseman “awesome” and “amazing,” raving about how well Hughes skates and always seems to have the puck.
“I think he’s one of the best defensemen, and he’s a lot of fun to watch,” Josi said.
That’s high praise from Josi, who was voted the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL in 2019-20 and was runner-up for the award last season.
And here’s the best part:
“I’m still 22, turning 23,” said Hughes, whose birthday is Oct. 14. “My game, I haven’t been close to peaking, and I think every year I’ll just get better.”
Hughes, the No. 7 pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, had 53 points (eight goals, 45 assists) in 68 games in 2019-20 and was runner-up to Colorado Avalanche defenseman Hold Makar for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
He had 41 points (three goals, 38 assists) in 56 games in 2020-21, then set a Canucks record for defensemen with 68 points (eight goals, 60 assists) in 76 games last season.
This season, his individual goals are clear:
“I want to score more, have more shots on net and create more,” Hughes said. “Yeah. I want to help our team win more.
“I think it’s a mentality and trying to rip it and put it through the net. That’s what I think. I’m always pass-first. Getting inside the middle of the ice a little bit more too.”
Video: VAN@CGY: Hughes puts shot over the goalies shoulder
Hughes spent time during the offseason skating three days a week at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan.
The group included his younger brothers, New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughesthe No. 1 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, and Devils defenseman prospect Luke Hughesthe No. 4 pick of the 2021 NHL Draft who will play at the University of Michigan this season.
It also included Seattle Kraken forward Matty BeniersWinnipeg Jets forward Kyle ConnorDetroit Red Wings center Dylan LarkinColumbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werensky and Anaheim Ducks forward Trevor Zegras.
“It’s a hard skate,” Hughes said. “It’s competitive. Guys are pushing themselves, and it is very specific, too, to what you want to work on.”
What specifically will help Hughes score more this season, especially knowing that the Canucks might move him to the right side as a left-handed shot?
“I was fortunate to watch Quinn this summer a lot,” Werenski said. “He’s really good at what he does. His skating, his escape moves, his cutbacks. He’s always creating things for other people. For me, I’m more of a shooter. I don’t really create as much as he does, so to be able to watch him and learn from him this summer was awesome.
“I think the thing we worked on the most was attacking in the offensive zone, attacking downhill, taking the ice that the forward gives you, not just shooting it from the blue line and not just standing there. If it goes up to your [defense] partner, D to D, attack downhill. If you don’t like it, cut back. Do something creative.”
Werenski used Makar as an example.
Makar had 86 points (28 goals, 77 assists) in 77 games last season. He led NHL defensemen in goals, was second to Josi (96) among defensemen in points and won the Norris. He led the Stanley Cup champion Avalanche with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) in 20 games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the postseason.
“I feel like when you watch a guy like Cale Makar, every shift he’s making a difference,” Werenski said. “It’s not just one or two shifts a game. Every shift you see him out there, you see him doing something. He’s pushing the play. He’s attacking. He’s got that attack mentality.
“And I think that’s something we talked about, me and Quinn, this summer, is making sure we have that every shift, and that’s something we were working on.”
Jack Hughes expects big things from his big brother.
“I think [Quinn is] going to score more goals this year, that’s for sure,” Jack said. “I know he’s focused on his shot a lot. He has a good shot, but I think he’s focused on using it. I mean, he’s been a League leader in assists for defensemen every year he’s been in [the NHL]but I think it’s time where he kind of understands he can score too and beat goalies.
“He’s a guy that knows how to put up points, and I think 68 is a franchise record that will be broken this year and the following year and so on. I think his game’s only going to continue to get better.”