Winning at a cost: Is wear and tear impacting Quinn Hughes’ play and deployment? (2024)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Not one to mince words, J.T. Miller perfectly summed up the potential enormity of the greatest comeback in Canucks franchise history – one that might be forever remembered as the Meltdown in Music City.

“Eight and a half hours of flying,” Miller said.

That’s what’s at stake for the Vancouver Canucks if they can somehow finish off the Nashville Predators in five games on Tuesday night at Rogers Arena. One fewer round trip across the continent, in what is by far the most grueling first round Stanley Cup playoff series for travel. There are 50 percent more miles flown between Vancouver and Nashville than the next most distant pair of playoff cities (Edmonton to Los Angeles).

A win would not only save time on the bird, but precious wear and tear on Vancouver’s already battered bodies.

Because if the Canucks are going to be a real threat to slay the Edmonton Oilers in Round 2, they’re going to need their engine to rest and recover as much as possible.

Park the injuries to Vancouver’s goaltenders – and the absurdity that the Canucks are the first team in 20 years to have three different goalies (Thatcher Demko, Casey DeSmith and Arturs Silovs) capture the first three wins of a series. DeSmith is an option to return on Tuesday, and that will be Rick Tocchet’s decision, while Demko could be back as soon as Round 2.

This is all about captain Quinn Hughes, their single most critical cog and game breaker on the back end. If Hughes wasn’t injured at the beginning of this series, and we’d suspect that he is based on deployment, uncharacteristic play and impact, then he is most certainly feeling the effects of Nashville’s commitment to pain now.

“Yeah, they’re running him,” Tocchet said. “That’s playoff hockey.”

The odds-on favorite for the Norris Trophy hasn’t quite looked like himself – well, all the way until he faked Gustav Nyquist out of his skates and helped author the erasure of a two-goal deficit in the final 2:49 of Game 4. That he may be doing it while physically compromised is the stuff of legend.

It’s the playoffs, though, and good luck getting anyone to acknowledge it. That isn’t the Canucks’ way under Tocchet – injuries aren’t an excuse – and no one has outright said it. Hughes himself wasn’t available to the media on Sunday as the team said he was receiving treatment. (For what it’s worth, they didn’t make Demko available after Game 1 for the same reason, and then he didn’t practice the following day, and he’s been out since.)

There is plenty of evidence to the eye to support something is up. Hughes has made uncharacteristic puck bobbles and turnovers, including a sequence on Sunday that led directly to Nashville’s first goal. The entire Canucks team isn’t generating as much offensively as a result of a one-and-done forecheck, and so we’ve also seen less of Hughes controlling play at the blue line as a result.

You’d have a hard time convincing me that Quinn Hughes is fully healthy watching yet another uncharacteristic puck bobble from the likely Norris Trophy winner. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/Pi8h3fgZyR

— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) April 28, 2024

Then there is the deployment clue. In the first four games of this series, Hughes’ ice time is down 1:35 per game (23:06) compared to his regular season average (24:41). It’s exceedingly rare for a player of Hughes’ stature to see his ice time drop when the games matter more. In Game 3, he was south of 20 minutes for the first time since Nov. 2, the only other time that happened in his 82-game season.

On Sunday, Hughes missed a shift after being crunched by Colton Sissons and Jason Zucker in a Bash Brothers-style double team. He was hunched over on the bench in pain but never went down the tunnel. Through two periods, Hughes was sixth of six Canucks blueliners in even-strength ice time.

Big hit on Quinn Hughes. The #Predators have been running #Canucks captain all series. #StanleyCupPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/71zMjXJPdR

— Derek Van Diest (@DerekVanDiest) April 28, 2024

He somehow then managed to play a staggering 5:35 of the final 7:32 of regulation, making magic happen in a way that so few can. It was vintage Hughes.

So, what does the data say? No player in the NHL had the puck more on his stick in the regular season than Hughes. It wasn’t really close. According to Stathletes, Hughes had 746 more puck carries (of six feet or longer) than any other player in the league. He also completed more passes (4,047) than any other player, some six percent more than Drew Doughty. Think about this one: Hughes had significantly more puck carries in the offensive zone than Connor McDavid this season.

Most of those individual possession metrics have continued at the same pace in the playoffs so far, with two key exceptions: 1) Hughes is personally generating one-third fewer shot attempts per game compared to the regular season and 2) Hughes is completing 22 percent fewer passes under pressure, which is a direct result of the pounding Nashville is inflicting on him.

“We’ve got to help him out in certain situations,” Tocchet said. “And he’s got to put himself in better positions. If we’re skating a little bit more quicker, if we’re winning some more battles, they’re not going to have as many chances to hit him and that’ll help him. It just goes around in a circle for me.”

Tocchet made it clear that part of the onus is on Hughes here: “They send three at you. Sometimes you’ve got to play more of a give and go, you’ve got to get the puck up a little quicker. When you hold onto pucks too long, then you get doubled up. It’s hard to play one-on-one hockey against Nashville.”

The Canucks have shown incredible fight and resilience, no surprise with Hughes leading the way. Vancouver was outclassed in Nashville, but that doesn’t matter now. In the playoffs, they don’t ask you how, just how many. Which only ratchets up the urgency heading into Game 5 – for the miles saved, for Hughes, for the overall viability of their playoff run.

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Winning at a cost: Is wear and tear impacting Quinn Hughes’ play and deployment? (1)

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Winning at a cost: Is wear and tear impacting Quinn Hughes’ play and deployment? (2024)
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