One of Jim Benning's favourite draft mantras is "We know we're going to get a good player."
He scored on a defenseman who was widely expected to be off the board when the Vancouver Canucks took Quinn Hughes with the seventh-overall pick in Friday's first round of the 2018 NHL Draft.
Hughes is the definition of the modern defenseman—a superb skater with a strong first pass and good power-play instincts.
i'm happy with the pick because I had a chance to watch him with Team USA at the World Championship in Denmark. Going in, I expected he'd be used in a specialty role, especially on the power play—not unlike what Sweden did with Rasmus Dahlin at the Olympics. But U.S. coach Jeff Blashill didn't hesitate to give Hughes plenty of ice time in all situations on a good team that included anchors like Alec Martinez and Connor Murphy. When Charlie McAvoy arrived after the Boston Bruins were eliminated from the playoffs, it was Jordan Oesterle, not Hughes, who was scratched from the lineup to make room.
Hughes finished the tournament with two assists and a plus-four in 10 games, averaging 12:13 of ice time. He saw 11:39 of action in Team USA's 4-1 win over Canada in a bronze-medal game that didn't break open until the final minutes. That was right in the same range as Nick Jensen (11:17), Neal Pionk (11:57) and Murphy (12:27), while McAvoy, Martinez and Will Butcher ate up the lions' share of the minutes.
Yes, he's really small. He didn't take part in the physical testing at the scouting combine so he wasn't weighed and measured then, but stat line from Worlds
lists him at 5'9" and 168 pounds, a bit below Central Scouting's 5'10" and 173 pounds.
About 1:15 into this video, you can hear Brian Burke declare "That's a small body, gentlemen."
Hughes' size was the first thing I noticed when I saw him live, for sure. But by the end of the tournament I'd kind of forgotten about it. As the commentators also mentioned in the video, he had no trouble holding his own on the ice—and he probably got huge benefit from sitting next to Patrick Kane in the U.S. locker room. Kane was roasted for being too small to play in the NHL when he was drafted first overall in 2007—listed at 5'9.5" and 160 pounds and ranked second among North American skaters behind Kyle Turris
U.S. general manager Bill Zito and coach Jeff Blashill were so enamored with Hughes, I was convinced that he wouldn't fall to the Canucks—that Detroit would take him for sure if he was available at six. The surprising availability of Filip Zadina changed that, and here we are.
I spent most of this week fantasizing that Zadina would fall to the Canucks, but Jim Benning wasn't on board with my dream.
What happens next? It seems like both Hughes and Benning are open to the possibility of him turning pro immediately.
"Just watch me at the world championship. If you saw it, you saw I can defend against bigger, stronger guys," he told Jason Botchford of The Province on Friday.
“I held my own. I thought I did a great job,” Hughes said. “In that first game, I was like ‘Uh-oh, I hope I don’t end up on the ice against (Connor) McDavid.’ But I ended up on the ice against him during 3-on-3 in overtime, and that was pretty fun.”
What I remember about that overtime: McDavid was on the ice with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Aaron Ekblad—three first-overall picks. I thought they were a slam-dunk to score, but the U.S. went on to win in the shootout. So yeah, I bet that was "pretty fun" for Quinn when all was said and done.
“My dream is to play in the NHL as fast as possible,” he told Botchford. “I was waiting. It’s up to the team, right? I just don’t know yet. Both ways are a win-win for me. I love everything about Michigan. I’m excited to get to the Canucks’ development camp and figure things out from there.”
We'll be excited to see him, too.
Development camp runs July 2-5 at Rogers Arena, and is open to the public. Practices will run from 9 a.m. to noon from July 2-4 and the Summer Showcase game is scheduled for Thursday, July 5, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets for that cost $10 and are available through Ticketmaster.
One other interesting note from Hughes' interview session on Friday: he plays both sides.
I played the left the majority of the year because we had four righties on our team and I didn’t need to play the right. I feel as comfortable on the right as I do on the left. There’s positives and negatives to both. If I’m a righty, I can walk in on my forehand, and if I’m a lefty, I have to skate over, but – I don’t know if I explained that the best but trust me, there’s positives and negatives in both. It’s important to learn how to do both, but I’ve done a good job at that.
I don’t really know Vancouver’s defensemen that well. If they have a lot of righties, then I’ll probably be playing left. And if they have a lot of lefties, I’ll probably be playing right.
As you probably know by now, Hughes comes from a hockey family. His mom, Ellen, played for the U.S. national team and won a silver medal at the 1992 World Championship—well before women's hockey was even really a thing! His father, Jim, was a defenseman at Providence who had a brief minor-league career before moving to coaching. He was an assistant with the Boston Bruins for two years in the early 2000s and spent a couple of years in Canada when Quinn was young as an assistant for the Toronto Marlies in 2007 and 2008.
Quinn has two younger brothers. Jack has already been anointed as the consensus first-overall pick in 2019 and Luke's currently playing bantam AAA.
Presumably, those strong hockey bloodlines are part of what has helped Quinn handle the hype around Jack so impressively. Rather than coming off petulant that his little brother is more widely revered than he is, he always speaks highly of Jack and even talks about what he learns from him. That seems like a great quality to have in what could be a difficult circumstance.
I'll take a look at the Canucks' Saturday selections once the second round has wrapped up—and leave the last word today for you: