Quinn Hughes said he felt better than ever when he skated with Vancouver Canucks teammates for the first time in Phase 2 of the NHL Return to Play Plan at Rogers Arena on Tuesday.
“Definitely recharged and chomping at the bit,” the rookie defenseman said. “I think maybe the four months here were a blessing in disguise for me because I feel really strong now and think that I can perform better in the playoffs now than I would have 3 1/2 months ago. … I feel as strong as I’ve ever been, so I’m confident, excited and ready to come back here.”
It was Vancouver’s first day skating in Phase 2, which began June 8 when the NHL allowed for voluntary workouts on and off the ice in small groups at team facilities. In addition to Hughes, notable players who participated in one of two sessions were defenseman Christopher Tanev and forwards Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
Hughes, who led NHL rookies with 53 points (eight goals, 45 assists) and 25 power-play points this season, played in 68 of Vancouver’s 69 games before the NHL paused its season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
“Everyone’s going through this (quarantine) for the first time, so people don’t really know what to expect,” Hughes said. “But, for me personally, it was really nice to see the boys again today. Everyone missed each other, and it was a fun day.”
The Canucks were 36-27-6 (.565 points percentage) and will enter the Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. They will play the No. 10 seed, the Minnesota Wild (35-27-7, .558), in one of eight best-of-5 series.
Provided health and safety conditions allow and the NHL and NHL Players’ Association reach an agreement on Phases 3 and 4 of the Return to Play Plan, training camps will open July 10. A start date for the qualifiers and hub cities — one for the 12 participating Western Conference teams, one for the 12 Eastern teams — have not been determined.
“This time away from the game has given me a lot of time to reflect on what I can get better at, reflect on the future and what that series (against the Wild) may look like,” Hughes said. “They’re going to play hard, it’s going to be do-or-die. They’re going to probably play pretty physical, and those are things I’m going to have to get used to, and I welcome that. I think it’ll be really fun, honestly.”
Hughes, along with Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, is widely regarded as a top candidate for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. He said the voting is out of his control at this point and that he’s solely focused on the qualifier series.
“It’s amazing; when you’re in the season, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it a lot, but, now that the season’s over, I haven’t really thought about it because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter,” Hughes said. “For me, it was obviously a goal and something I wanted to do and accomplish. There are a lot of great rookies this year. If I do end up winning, that’s something I’ll cherish and it’s a blessing, but, if I don’t, I can tip my cap.”
Hughes became the third defenseman in the NHL modern era (since 1943-44) to lead rookies in scoring in a season, joining Bobby Orr (1966-67) and Brian Leetch (1988-89).
“When you say those two names, it sounds a little bit crazy, so, no, I wouldn’t [have expected] to hear that,” Hughes said. “But, at the same time, I expected myself to have a really good season. After playing those five games [last season and having three assists], I thought I played good but knew I had another level. When I had that success, I really thought that I could have a tremendous year.”
Hughes was living at his family’s house in Plymouth, Michigan, during the pause. He said he spent most of his time with his younger brothers, Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils and Luke, playing basketball 2-3 hours per day, in-line skating and swimming, among other activities, to stay in shape.
“I’m more competitive at home than I would be here, honestly,” Hughes said with a laugh. “I had a lot of fun at home with those guys because we don’t spend a lot of time together during the year. It was pretty rowdy at the house; it was a good time.”
With 24 teams to compete for the Stanley Cup, Hughes said he is confident players around the NHL will bring the intensity.
“I expect it to be very competitive and very good hockey,” Hughes said. “We haven’t played in a while, but we’re all professionals and I think you can pick these things up quickly. … It should be really good, high-end hockey.”