But Hughes, the 20-year-old rookie sensation, will also be faster, stronger, and better than the Calder Trophy finalist the Wild saw during his visit to Vancouver and his 4-3 victory over the Canucks in the tournament. a shooting on February 19. three weeks before the NHL’s shutdown for the coronavirus.
If the Canucks defenseman wins the Calder after this extraordinary Stanley Cup tournament is over, Hughes may feel a bit like a fraud – because he doesn’t feel like a rookie anymore.
“I kinda feel like I’m heading into my sophomore year now,” Hughes told Sportsnet in an exclusive interview before the Canucks move here for the franchise’s first playoff games since 2015. “I am stronger, i am better, i expect more from myself. But at the same time, I’m getting into playoff hockey, so I’m modest in the sense that I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I am convinced that I can play an important role in the series.
The Canucks and Wild are in a five-game qualifying streak to advance to the final 16, and Hughes has been instrumental in everything his team has done this season.
The playoffs are sometimes referred to as the “second season,” but for developing stars like Hughes, that label has a literal feel this summer.
The four-month hiatus in the NHL was more than a chance to rest and heal for Hughes. It was a chance to improve.
There is a huge learning curve on and off the ice for young players in the league. Out-of-season conditioning and development are almost as important as in-season performance. It took four or five years for former Canucks stars Daniel and Henrik Sedin to figure out how to train properly and find the right balance between strength and speed.
Hughes’ 23-year-old teammate Brock Boeser is at the end of his third season in the NHL and only seems to have discovered the right balance of conditioning. Like the Sedins, Boeser got too heavy in his initial run to get stronger for the NHL. But Boeser spent stopping COVID-19 working out cardio at home in Minnesota and has looked fitter and faster since returning to the Canucks. He is also healthy for the first time in a long time.
Boeser and Hughes were Vancouver’s best players at training camp. Sophomore center Elias Pettersson, 21, also looks stronger and faster.
“Petey is definitely stronger because Petey’s body continues to grow,” said Hughes. “I think Brock is a little fuller already, but Brock skated really hard (during the stoppage) and tried to work on some things. I have spoken to him and he feels really confident. The big problem with Petey was that he could get a little stronger and I could get a little stronger? Because we have room for growth there.
Considering their age and the ascending arc of their careers, there is an organic element to the improvement of the young Canucks stars since we last saw them in March. But it was not accidental.
“I didn’t know how long we were going to be off (with the stoppage), so I just took a few weeks off at the start,” said Hughes. “I had played a bit poorly towards the end so I needed a break just for that. But Coach (Travis) Green kind of asked me to start training and try to use that to my advantage to get stronger and better. He said it would be good for the team and it would help me too, so he was on top of me a lot, calling me pretty much every week to discuss how things were going. It was a huge motivation for me. It really helped me.
When asked at camp if he was pushing his young stars to treat the shutdown as an off-season development, Green said, “I would say we talked about it openly and frankly, and the expectations were for them to become stronger and better players on their return. .
“I thought at the start of this, yes. . . the young players of our team could come back and take a step, that would give us a huge advantage for the same season that we just left. This has never happened before.
There will be a lot of things about this playoffs that have never happened before. But inexperience, especially without fans influencing momentum, shouldn’t be the handicap it is generally viewed. And if the league’s most talented young players are even better for extra development time, then teams like the Canucks that rely heavily on entry-level stars need to be better, too.
“It’s not crazy,” veteran Jay Beagle said of the theory. “I think our whole team saw that in these guys. It’s very visible with Hughes. He can just dominate the game and look more comfortable, more confident, like a sophomore pro. We certainly saw it and talked about it as a group. The team looks dangerous right now.
Hughes, who is five-tenths tall and played the regular season at around 172 pounds, estimates he’s added around five pounds of muscle in the past four months. He said he had progressed well beyond the player he was in September when he presented to the Canucks as a 19-year-old prospect who was sent off six months from the University of Michigan.
“Physically it’s a huge difference,” he says. “But mentally, it’s even bigger. I have learned a lot this year from the coaching staff and the players. I think I’m smarter, I’m better, I’m smarter, I’m stronger. I don’t think there will be as much (improvement) as there has been from September to now. But I will continue to improve.
“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, I’m ready for the playoffs.’ Who really knows? There are some big, strong guys out there (on the Wild) and I have to be smart where I put my body and how long I hold on to the pucks. Guys like the Sedins have learned to take care of their bodies over the years. All it takes is one bad move and it might be over. It is therefore important for me to put myself in the right places.
“Each game takes its own shape and form, and some games I might be able to do a little more than others just depending on how precise they are and what the other team gives me. But I feel confident. We are all confident in what we can do. “