Is Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes being overlooked in the Norris Trophy race?

Hughes is excelling on a tanking team while playing high-volume minutes against top-line opponents.

Vancouver Canucks blueliner Quinn Hughes has completed one of the most difficult tasks asked of a modern defenseman by excelling on a tanking team while playing high-volume minutes against top-line opponents, night after night.

Hughes has been one of the lone bright spots for the Canucks amid another disappointing season — Vancouver appeared to be tanking for Bedard but hasn't been truly awful enough to bolster its odds of securing the hometown phenom in this summer’s draft. Hughes has been among the league’s best defensemen and though there isn’t much to be stoked about in Vancouver, we may have overlooked his excellent season to date.

For the third consecutive year, the Norris Trophy is the only major awards race that is still up for grabs, with Connor McDavid looking to be a unanimous choice for the Hart, Seattle’s rookie standout Matty Beniers cruising to the Calder, while Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Linus Ullmark and Jim Montgomery will walk away with the Selke, Vezina and Jack Adams, respectively.

Here are the cases for and against Hughes’ Norris candidacy.

Quinn Hughes is having another strong season for the Canucks. (Photo by Rob Curtis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Quinn Hughes is having another strong season for the Canucks. (Photo by Rob Curtis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The case for Hughes

The unresolved nature of what the Norris Trophy means can invite a wide range of cases and Hughes’ offensive brilliance is his calling card. Hughes ranks fourth in points (65) among all defensemen with five goals and 60 assists, trailing Erik Karlsson (89) Josh Morrissey (69) and Dougie Hamilton (66). Rasmus Dahlin and Adam Fox are on Hughes’ heels with 63 points each, while Cale Makar, who missed time with a concussion earlier this year, has recorded 61 points.

Perhaps what’s most impressive about Hughes is that he continues to be offensively proficient with high-volume minutes, while boasting excellent underlying numbers offensively. Hughes ranks sixth in average ice time among defensemen, logging 25:23 per evening, trailing Makar, Drew Doughty, Karlsson, Dahlin and Miro Heiskanen.

Vancouver has controlled 57 percent of the actual goals and 48 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick, when Hughes has been on the ice. In simpler terms, the Canucks have bested opponents with 72 goals for versus 54 against when Hughes is on the ice at 5-on-5.

As a team, the Canucks have a minus-22 goal differential at 5-on-5, which speaks volumes about how Hughes is making the best of a tough situation. Hughes has also been defensively responsible, with 35 takeaways versus 27 giveaways. These aren’t eye-popping numbers, but he’s still solidly among the top 20 players with respect to the ratio.

Hughes is most similar to Karlsson in terms of player profile, but San Jose’s veteran has been better in all regards. The 32-year-old is in a different tier offensively, where he leads all players regardless of position with 54 points at 5-on-5. And this is where it gets tricky for Hughes. While Karlsson is one of the NHL’s premier offensive players this season, he’s also been known for his same defensive deficiencies, and he’s carrying a much worse Sharks team that is outright tanking after the Timo Meier trade.

Hughes’ best argument for the Norris Trophy is his proficiency on the power play, where he leads all blueliners with 30 points. The 23-year-old is the primary reason why the Canucks are clicking at a 22.6 percent rate with the man advantage, the 10th-best mark in the league. Although Hughes is a dynamic skater, he’s best used when the Canucks can run set plays, where his outstanding passing and playmaking can shine best while he doesn’t have to worry too much about his transition defense.

It’s clear that Hughes is one of the league’s best offensive defenseman and he’s a world-class skater with innate power-play quarterback skills. We don’t think he’ll win the Norris, in large part because Karlsson has been better in nearly every offensive category on a much worse team. But if we’re looking to assess where Hughes ranks among all defensemen in impact, you have to consider him a top-10 talent in the NHL.

The case against Hughes

The overly simplistic scouting report on Hughes is that he’s an offensive dynamo who isn’t nearly as effective as a defender because of his diminutive size. Some of this holds up, although Hughes isn’t nearly as bad a defender as popular opinion would lead you to believe.

Among 194 qualified defenders with 500 minutes played, Hughes is tied for 78th with 2.58 expected goals against per 60 — he’s tied with fellow 2018 draft classmate Dahlin, who gets credit for erasing chances as an all-around star for the Sabres. This isn’t the worst territory to be in; it signifies Hughes as an average defensive presence compared to the rest of the NHL, but when assessing his case for the Norris against Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin (2.06 XGA/60, 4th in the NHL) and Brent Burns (2.08 XGA/60, 5th), along with Makar and Boston’s Hampus Lindholm (2.28 XGA/60, T15), it almost becomes disqualifying. Doughty ranks 29th (2.36 XGA/60), Fox ranks 49th (2.44 XGA/60) and Charlie McAvoy ranks 56th (2.48 XGA/60).

Hughes isn’t generating a ton of independent offense or taking opportunistic rushes. He isn’t pushing himself into prime scoring locations off the rush like many of his contemporaries and he’s a somewhat reluctant shooter, especially when you consider the long minutes he plays every night. Karlsson and Fox have generated more takeaways than Hughes as well.

If Karlsson’s offensive numbers are superior to Hughes, Fox has been superior defensively in nearly every respect. He’s been as good offensively in almost every scenario as well, and the 2021 Norris winner has impacted winning for a contending Rangers team moreso than Hughes.

You can’t fault Hughes for his team record, but Fox, Makar, Lindholm and Slavin all have better cases when discussing the narrative, while Karlsson’s 20-point lead in the scoring race is enough to convince parts of the electorate who aren’t paying attention to all aspects of the game. Hughes has an admirable case, but he’ll likely end up on the fringes of the Norris vote, while firmly establishing himself as a perennial contender for the award.