Vancouver Canucks

Quinn Hughes and the Evolution of the NHL Defenceman

..."Because I was a small guy growing up, I had to learn the game different"

March 10, 2022

Adam Kierszenblat - @Adamkblat

Over the past decade, there has been an evolution when it comes to defencemen in the National Hockey League. Gone are the days when a defender needed to be a towering figure as some of the best blueliners in the game stand under six feet.

One of those players is Quinn Hughes.

The Canucks superstar is showing that if you are skilled enough, you can still be a dynamic force on the blueline regardless of height.

According to the Canucks official roster, Hughes stands 5'10", 180 lbs. The average player in the NHL is about 6'1", 198 lbs, which means he needs to find new and technical ways to get the opposition off the puck. Luckily for Canuck fans, Hughes seems to have figured out the secret to success for shorter defenders.

"Being patient, learning, having a good stick and skating well," Hughes said. "You need to know how to be strong on guys, when to push guys and making sure my game's always evolving."

The last decade has seen a dramatic change in how NHL general managers view defenders under six feet. For example, during the 2011 NHL draft, zero defencemen were drafted in the first two rounds that were under six feet tall. Fast forward to 2018, the year Hughes was drafted, where four defencemen under six feet were selected in the first round alone (Hughes 7th, Ty Smith 17th, Nils Lundqvist 28th and Rasmus Sandin 29th).

Currently in the NHL, there are 10 blueliners who were drafted in the first round who are under six feet. Flashback again to 2011, there were only two in Ryan Ellis and Keith Ballard. Instead of prioritizing height, teams are focusing on skill which is proving to be the right investment.

One other thing that has changed over the decade is the position Hughes plays.

Before the age of 13, Hughes was actually a forward but thanks to some sick teammates, his life was forever changed and for the better.

"I loved it," Hughes said when discussing his transition to defence. "I was actually only supposed to play D for a game or two because we had guys who were sick or something and all of a sudden, I wanted to play D the next year. I asked the coach the next year to switch full time."

The Canucks can thank not only his coach but also whatever bug was going around that week. If not for a coaching decision, fans would have never been able to experience his dynamic play on the blueline.

When Bruce Boudreau first arrived, he said Hughes and Elias Pettersson approached him to play on the penalty kill. Since then, Hughes has played close to 50 minutes of ice time while shorthanded, and looks to be having success. He seized the opportunity presented and has become a strong, well-rounded defenceman because of it.

"I think they are giving me a lot of opportunity," Hughes said. "I'm learning. (Coach Brad) Shaw is really helping me … We will see where we are at the end of the year but they are giving me a lot of confidence, a chance to play my game and in return, I'm trying to do whatever I can to help."

Some factors behind his defensive success are positioning and being able to get back in the play after pinching. Rather than putting his head down and just trying to get back, Hughes skates back with his head up always trying to read the play and what the opposing forward is going to do next. This is a skill he works on with his dad during the summer or whenever the opportunity arises.

"I think everything we try and do, we do fast," he said. "Not necessarily where your head is down but with a purpose. That way, you are never really casually going and always working on your explosions and crossovers."

Once he gets the puck away from the opposition, his real strength takes over. Hughes has a remarkable ability to change directions and even spin off defenders.

"It happens so quick," he said. "Sometimes it's hard when the guy is behind you but if he is in front of you with his stick up, he's not going to recover. Usually when I see his stick come up, I know I can turn back."

In the Canucks opening superhero video, Hughes plays Spider-Man. Just like the web slinging superhero, it seems as though Hughes has a sixth sense or a Spidey Sense that helps him get out of trouble. This is something he has had to develop over the years. Although he states he does not have a sixth sense, the way he moves on the ice and reacts draws strong comparison to the Avenger.

"I think because I was a small guy growing up, I had to learn the game different," he explained. "It's not like I'm some 6'6" guy who can rely on my brawn. I think I had to really understand so no, I don't think I have a sixth sense, but I do have an understanding."

Despite his limited time in the NHL, Hughes has helped change the game for the better. Hockey fans now get to experience these high skilled defencemen who would have been an afterthought just a decade ago. The game is changing, and Canucks fans are lucky enough to witness the excitement first-hand.