Quinn Hughes was the only rookie to appear at the NHL All-Star Weekend, earning the vote as the last man in for the Pacific Division. If a national audience hadn’t seen much of the budding American star, it certainly got a good education in his skill level. That included Wayne Gretzky, who was mic’d up on Team Pacific’s bench as its guest coach.
After Hughes scored a highlight-reel goal on a move similar to the one Peter Forsberg made famous in the 1994 Olympics, The Great One said, “That young lad’s a defenseman? That’s better hands than I had.”
It’s kind of amazing to see what Hughes has accomplished this season. He has exceeded every reasonable expectation that was widely held for him. However, as I’ve learned in the three-plus years I’ve followed his career, underestimate Quinn Hughes at your own peril.
Aside from showcasing his talent in a winning effort for Team Pacific that put a little extra money in his pocket, Hughes has been surprising just about everyone with how much his game has matured, how confident he is with the puck on his stick and, perhaps most of all, his play in the defensive zone. No one is more surprised than an oncoming forward trying to pressure Hughes when he uses his deceptive skating to wriggle into an open area of the ice and make a great play. There might be no better example than the goal he scored last week against the San Jose Sharks.
Between his footwork and shot, Quinn Hughes is just the total package. pic.twitter.com/YVTuzRr9nj
— NHL (@NHL) January 30, 2020
This play is what makes Hughes special in a nutshell. He senses the pressure from Timo Meier, sells that he’s going up the boards and then with his superior edges, he’s off into space while Meier finds nothing but the boards. Then there’s that quick, little pivot into a shooting lane and an absolute rip into the top corner.
Hughes’ shot was viewed as a weakness leading into the 2018 NHL draft, and it’s something he has clearly spent a lot of time developing. He has 97 shots on goal so far this season, placing him in the top five among rookies. He’s also credited with 46 slap shots on net, more than any rookie. Getting pucks through from distance is no longer a concern. Five of his eight goals this season have come via the slap shot from a ways out.
Hughes started nearly 83% of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone in a highly sheltered, five-game stint with the Canucks last season. Now, he’s being utilized like a top-four defenseman, still starting the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone but without as much sheltering. The forward Hughes has had the most ice time against this season? Connor McDavid. And the only time McDavid has scored in the nearly 40 minutes of ice time against Hughes was in the first game of the season.
That’s one cherry-picked stat, of course, and there’s a lot more to the season, but the idea that Hughes is a liability in his own zone has been shattered. The Canucks are discernibly better in just about every metric with Hughes on the ice, including shot share, goal share and chance share. As a result, the former Michigan Wolverine has become a credible Calder Trophy threat to Cale Makar, who had seemed to be padding a sizable lead for himself. But after posting five points over his past three games, Hughes actually overtook Makar for the rookie scoring lead with 39 points.
Let’s take a further look at Hughes, Makar and the rest of my top 10 rookies for 2019-20. All stats are through Feb. 2 games.
The injury that kept Makar on the shelf for a few weeks might have slowed him down a little bit, but he’s still leading all rookie regulars in points per game at 0.88. That is better than what Hall of Famers Chris Chelios and Phil Housley did in their rookie seasons and matches Al MacInnis’ Year 1 production. Both the Avs and Makar have looked a little more human in the weeks since he returned from injury, but for now, he still has a pretty good grip on things.
Hughes now leads all rookies in time on ice per game played, averaging more than 21:30 per game. He’s a power-play weapon, with half of his points coming on the man advantage. The Canucks keep getting spoiled by having a new rookie come in over each of the past three seasons and captivating the fan base. First, it was Brock Boeser, then Elias Pettersson … and now it’s Hughes.
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The positive impact Fox has on the Rangers’ ability to possess pucks and get things going has been truly impressive to watch. He has been sheltered somewhat, but he’s feasting on his opportunities. When Fox is on the ice, the Rangers control the shot attempts at a rate more than 8% higher than when he’s off. Regardless of how he’s used, that makes the Rangers a lot better when he’s out on the ice.
Still week-to-week with an ankle injury, Olofsson has been a top performer for Buffalo when healthy. He remains the team’s third-leading scorer and has been a reasonably reliable source for goals for a team that doesn’t have too many. Olofsson should remain a bright spot for Sabres fans in an increasingly frustrating season, as he’s proving he can be a legit top-six forward.
Among rookie regulars playing a top-four role, Marino is averaging the most shorthanded ice time per game at nearly two minutes per game. And the Pens are a top-10 team on the penalty kill. The defense-first blueliner has also produced offensively at a reasonable clip and could threaten for 40 points at the end of the season.
This is Kubalik’s first appearance on the rookie rankings, and while I’ve liked his game all season — particularly when it comes to shot generation — there just wasn’t a lot happening, and his role was fairly limited. Now a wing on Chicago’s top line, Kubalik tied for second among all NHL players in goals scored between Dec. 1 and the end of January. Only Auston Matthews had more. The 25-year-old Czech forward is shooting at the same rate as he did prior to Dec. 1, but more pucks are going in, as his shooting percentage has spiked to 26.8% from 10.5% earlier in the season. He’s your current rookie goal-scoring leader.
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The mounting frustration of this season in Montreal is softened by the emergence of Suzuki. He’s gradually improving, making the most of his ice time. Since Dec. 1, Suzuki’s average ice time has jumped more than two minutes to nearly 17 minutes per game. He also ranks second among all rookies with 20 points in 28 games since Dec. 1 and first with 16 assists over that same span.
Merzlikins made eight appearances between the start of the season and Dec. 7. They did not go well. He lost each of his seven starts, posting an .894 save percentage while allowing 25 goals. After the team lost Joonas Korpisalo to injury, they had no choice but to throw Merzlikins in as their No. 1. He has made 13 appearances, earned nine wins — including three shutouts — and allowed just 20 total goals while posting a .947 save percentage. The Blue Jackets are even in the playoff picture. Maybe it’s just a huge heater and things will fall apart, but Elvis looks great and has helped change his team’s fortunes in a way few rookies can.
Despite being slotted down in the lineup, Necas has given the Hurricanes important scoring depth. He’s third among all rookies in points per 60 minutes and second in goals per 60 minutes. He’s doing a lot with that limited time, which is primarily at even strength and on the team’s second power-play unit. Relative to many of his fellow rookies, Necas is making a smaller impact, but it’s a positive impact nonetheless.
For all intents and purposes, this is a grooming year for Samsonov. Regardless of what happens with Braden Holtby’s contract situation, this season is all about building confidence and gaining valuable NHL experience. But Samsonov is still taking an active role in his team’s success. In 19 appearances, Samsonov has a .927 save percentage and has gone 15-2-1. He’s among the top 15 goalies in the NHL in goals-saved above average and high-danger save percentage at all strengths.
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Filip Zadina, RW, Detroit Red Wings. Since being called up in late November, Zadina has been one of the top-producing rookies in the NHL. He’s seventh in scoring with 15 points and ranks in the top five in goals scored with eight. Unfortunately he’s going to be out a few weeks with an injury, but he has turned perceptions about him around quickly. There was a lot of concern about where things were going when he didn’t make the team out of camp, but he increased his production in the AHL, where he struggled at times last season. The Red Wings are in a dire situation right now, but Zadina still can be a substantial building block and has proven that with his play so far.
Igor Shesterkin, G, New York Rangers. What an interesting predicament the Rangers find themselves in right now. The goalie of the future is knocking on the NHL door rather loudly. In four appearances this year at the NHL level, Shesterkin has posted a 3-1-0 record with a .927 save percentage and looks the part of a future NHL starter. I still think the Rangers should preach patience and let him continue to get reps in the AHL while making spot starts with the big club, but he is looking like a special prospect right now.