Asked about teammate Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson paused, smiled and laughed.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I feel that he must have been a forward growing up or something.”
A comment like that is not always meant as a compliment for a defenseman, especially a rookie defenseman. But in this case, it was. It was a skilled young player recognizing another.
Pettersson, who turns 21 on Nov. 12, won the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year last season when he had 66 points (28 goals, 38 assists) in 71 games, leading rookies in scoring by a 21-point margin.
Hughes, who turned 20 on Oct. 14, is a candidate for the Calder this season with 10 points (one goal, nine assists) in 12 games, tied for the rookie scoring lead with Buffalo Sabres forward Victor Olofsson (six goals, four assists), Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev (four goals, six assists) and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar (one goal, nine assists).
His 18-year-old brother, New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes, the No. 1 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, has five points (two goals, three assists) in 10 games.
Since the Canucks put Quinn Hughes on the No. 1 power play full time on Oct. 20, they have scored eight power-play goals, most in the NHL. Hughes has assisted on seven of them, leading the League in power-play points in that span. Vancouver is 4-0-1 in this stretch and 8-3-1 overall, second to the Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific Division.
“He’s great,” Pettersson said. “He just creates so much with his speed and the way he moves the puck. It’s really great to have and fun to see. It’s fun to play with him.”
Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is not surprised. He coached Hughes the past two years with the United States at the IIHF World Championship.
In 2018, Hughes was coming off his freshman season at the University of Michigan, where he had 29 points (five goals, 24 assists) in 37 games. He had two assists in 10 games at the worlds. The Canucks selected him No. 7 in the 2018 NHL Draft.
In 2019, Hughes was coming off his sophomore season at Michigan, where he had 33 points (five goals, 28 assists) in 32 games, and had just turned pro. He had three assists in five games for Vancouver down the stretch and three assists in eight games at the worlds.
Hughes is 5-foot-10, 175 pounds. But man, he can skate.
“Some guys are really good players in college or really good players in junior, but maybe they’re not explosive enough or maybe they’re not big enough or maybe they’re not fast enough,” Blashill said. “His skill set for me was transferable, because he is super explosive. I mean, super explosive. It wasn’t explosive for college hockey. It wasn’t explosive for the world championships. It’s explosive for the best players in the world.”
Hughes also has the moxie to make moves others wouldn’t try.
He made opponents look silly in a 5-2 win against the Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on Oct. 22. After assisting on two power-play goals, he pinched up the left-wing wall, grabbed the puck, hit the brakes and spun away from a defender. Then he skated straight into three or four defenders, spun away and fired the puck in front.
He was minus-4 in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals at Rogers Arena on Oct. 25, but he made a dazzling assist on a power play, beating three defenders wide while going end to end, centering a pass to forward Brock Boeser.
“I mean, there’s not a lot of guys in the NHL where a guy’s chasing you, and you can do one head fake, power turn and beat the guy,” Boeser said. “So it’s something special.”
Note: All of these comments were from the morning skate before that win in Detroit, before Hughes made either of those plays.
“I think it’s not easy, especially as a small [defenseman], to come in and play against men like this, and he’s handled himself really well,” Canucks center Bo Horvat said. “I think obviously his skating allows him to escape checks and get himself out of trouble. He’s been really good in that area.”
Vancouver coach Travis Green heaped heavy praise on Hughes — his edges, his stick, how he helps the breakouts, how he helps the transition game, how he makes everyone better. At the same time, Green said the Canucks were trying to keep expectations down.
“It’s not just about points with him,” Green said. “It’s about playing an overall strong game.”
Hughes said he feels more comfortable the more he plays in the NHL, but he doesn’t want to lose his sense of urgency.
“Just continue to impact the game,” Hughes said. “I want to be a really good player in the League, and for me, I’m just going to try to keep learning and getting better. … I’ve got a lot of work to do still.”