By Andy Eide
EVERETT — It’s easy to let your mind wander to the future while watching University of Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes. Watching him rifle perfect outlet passes during the USA World Junior training camp, the mind could clearly picture what it might look like for those passes to land on the stick of Vancouver Canucks rookie sensation Elias Pettersson as he rushes up the ice.
That future is still a way off though, as Hughes, whom Vancouver selected with the seventh pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, has some business to attend to before he can don a Canucks sweater.
“I haven’t thought about that too much,” he said after practice at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. “I think right now I’m just focused on USA hockey and getting through this tournament and hopefully doing something special at Michigan.”
Michigan made a late season run last year and made it all the way to the Frozen Four, where the Wolverines would fall to Notre Dame. Hughes turned in an impressive freshman season, racking up 29 points in 37 games. This year, he’s already closing in on those numbers, with three goals and 20 points in Michigan’s first 17 contests.
After his freshman year he was selected by Vancouver and had a choice to make this summer. He could have signed with the Canucks, and gone pro, or return to college.
He chose the college route and hasn’t looked back.
“I haven’t really wavered from that decision at all,” Hughes said. “I’m really happy at Michigan. Getting stronger in the weight room and another year of academics. I think our team is kind of struggling right now but we’ll figure it out. It’s been really good so far and I’m excited to get back.”
Michigan has lost some close games over the first half and sits in the middle of the Big Ten standings with a 6-7-4 record.
The fate of the Wolverines season will have to wait as Hughes is now focused on the World Juniors.
After camp in Everett, the team headed to Kamloops, B.C. for two exhibition games before kicking off the tournament with a game against Slovakia on Dec. 26th. Hughes is one of five returning players for the Americans and he will be expected to play a big role.
He is blessed with elite speed, can stick handle and he sees the ice well. Standing at 5-foot-10, he won’t be the biggest American defenseman, but he could end up being the most important.
“Quinn is pretty dynamic back there,” Team USA head coach Mike Hastings said. “He’s not 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 but I think he plays a big game because he can move so well with or without (the puck).”
With the World Junior Championships taking place in Victoria and Vancouver there will certainly be a lot of media, and fan, attention on Hughes. As a Canucks prospect he is an interesting position. He’s leading a USA team that is rivals with the home team, the Canadians.
The same fans who will one day be cheering for him, and wearing his jersey, will be rooting against him during the tournament.
“To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it,” he said when asked about playing in Vancouver. “Obviously I’m excited that the tournament’s going to be in Vancouver. I’m really excited to get back there and stuff like that but right now it’s not about Vancouver. It’s about USA Hockey and trying to win a tournament here.”
Hughes has been through this before.
He made last year’s American squad in his draft year and recorded three assists as Team USA won Bronze. Most of the Team USA roster this go around are new to the World Juniors. Hughes and the other veterans will certainly have a leadership role over the next month and be asked to instill their wisdom gained from last year’s experience to the new guys.
One of those new guys is very familiar with Hughes and just might garner his own share of the spotlight.
His younger brother, Jack Hughes, is on the roster and is the presumptive top pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. The two have never played on the same team before.
“Obviously, coming in this year I was really excited because I would be playing with him,” Quinn Hughes said of his brother.
Jack plays forward and like his brother, has speed to burn. The question is, which one is faster?
“Depends on who you ask,” Quinn said. “I’m sure he’d say himself. I probably go on my side, who knows though. He’s a great skater.”
The younger Hughes brother mentioned that they have a great relationship and work out together in the off-season. That has led to some competitive sessions on the ice.
“We train together and any time we get the chance to go one-on-one its always Quinn wanting to go against me and me wanting to go against him,” Jack Hughes said. “Of course, there’s some battles but I think it will be more fun to play with him this tournament.”
As USA works through its group play in Victoria after Christmas, expect to see Quinn Hughes on the ice a lot. He’ll have the puck on his stick as well and will help run the American offense. On the power play is where he may end up shining the most.
During the Everett camp he made some dazzling plays while on the power play. Whether its a pin-point pass to set up a teammate or a play where he seemingly dekes his way past all four penalty killers to create a shot, he is the ultimate power-play quarterback.
“I think that’s something he gets excited about,” Hastings said about the power play. “He makes good decisions. He’s not a one trick pony up there. He can shoot it, he can distribute it, I think he has some deception to his game up there. So, hopefully we can continue to build off that.”
The fans in Vancouver will be rooting for Team Canada but they’ll have an eye on Hughes and dream about him playing for them instead of against them.
He hasn’t said yet what his plans are for after Michigan’s season is over but there has been speculation that he would sign with the Canucks and join them this year. He’s not worried about that now however, he’s solely focused on winning the gold medal.
He has been keeping an eye on the Canucks season however, as best he can.
“Their games are a little bit later with the time change,” Hughes said. “So, I haven’t really been able to watch too many. When I wake up, I’ll check the NHL scores and watch highlights from the entire league, so I know what’s going on.”
While his Canucks future is still a day dream, his Team USA future starts now, and it could be a golden one.
Featured photo courtesy of Michigan Photography