Quinn Hughes is not a defensive liability
Over the past two decades, the positional demands on defencemen have dramatically changed. Teams are tapping into offensive skill on the blueline more than ever before, juicing offensive production and chasing loftier goal differentials.
That is, of course, easier said than done. Some offensive defencemen are exceptional offensively, so much so that the defensive goodness they create tends to be moot. See San Jose’s Erik Karlsson for the best example of such a player. Others may be more balanced in nature – Vegas’ Shea Theodore can’t create like Karlsson can, but he’s better away from the puck.
And then there’s the third category: The illusion of an offensive defenceman, one who isn’t creating as much offence as you would think, or is too big a defensive liability to care about what he’s contributing on the attack.
I bring this up in light of Vancouver defenceman Quinn Hughes’ remarks on Tuesday, where he bristled at the notion he is a defensive liability. Hughes has been an offensive wizard and playmaker since entering the league in the 2018-19 season, but Vancouver’s broader futility has started ensnaring even the team’s most talented skaters, and there are increasingly tough questions being asked.
I do think it’s worth exploring two points on this. First, if Hughes is a defensive liability, and second, if that ultimately matters. They are equitably important for organizations to understand.
Let’s start with defensive performance. The below table shows Hughes’ impact on real goals and expected goals on his teammates since entering the league. Because Hughes has played his entire career in Vancouver and with a very similar year-over-year environment (specifically, the teammates he’s playing with), we can measure the net effect Hughes is having on his teammates’ defensive numbers.
Hughes was a slight drag on his teammates’ defensive numbers for the first three years of his career, certainly so when looking at real goals scored, though that number is going to be more sensitive to goaltending performance and volatility.
What’s interesting is this year has seen a marked shift on both fronts. The players Hughes is skating with in 2022-23 have seen their defensive numbers improve when playing with him, and that’s been true across both coaching staffs.
While it’s true that teams can still work the inside relatively well against the Hughes pairing (he’s played mostly with Luke Schenn and Ethan Bear), volume has been dry. Said differently, teams are struggling to generate volume against the Hughes pairing, but have been able to attack from the interior:
That’s just the defensive component of this. What we ultimately care about – for forwards and defencemen alike – is how well they can drive goal differentials over the course of their career. That’s what leads to wins, and wins lead to titles.
Let’s look at Hughes’ career in contrast with that of the Vancouver Canucks when Hughes is off the ice, and see what those numbers look like:
To the extent the 23-year-old is a defensive liability, it hasn’t passed the most important litmus test there is – Vancouver has outscored their opponents over the course of career with Hughes on the ice, and are close to break-even on expected goals.
My sense is that Hughes is an easy target of sorts: He plays a lot of minutes, Vancouver’s been terrible for most of the time he’s been there, and he has the type of small frame that is obvious on video when a power forward is working him on the interior.
But the numbers show Hughes remains a net positive in the lineup. The numbers also show that when Hughes is off the ice, Vancouver capitulates like a draft lottery team.
And to the extent Hughes is feeling frustrated he’s being labeled as something he’s not? I’m inclined to agree with his sentiment.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference