Quinn Hughes continues to get better for the upstart Canucks

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Vancouver has drawn the defending champs in the first round of the playoffs, but the Canucks had the skill to take Game 1 away from St. Louis. And a rookie defenseman was right there in the mix.

Quinn Hughes|Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Just for the sake of fun, it would be wild if the Vancouver Canucks met up with the Colorado Avalanche at some point in these playoffs. Both teams have high-end offensive players, but specifically they both have incredible rookie defensemen who are vying for the Calder Trophy: Cale Makar in Colorado and Quinn Hughes in Vancouver.

Right now, Hughes has a tougher path forward as his Canucks battle the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues. But Vancouver took Game 1 of the series and Hughes was a big factor, setting up the Canucks’ first goal and logging the second-most ice time of any defensemen on the team with 21:28 of service. A big part of that is Hughes’ heavy participation on the power play, which has really been clicking so far. Through five post-season games, Vancouver sits fifth in the NHL on the man advantage with a 28 percent success rate – though three of the four teams ahead of them were eliminated in the qualifying round.

During the regular season, the Canucks were similarly proficient, ranking fourth overall with a 24.2 percent mark. The improvement shouldn’t be surprising though, as new additions such as Hughes and J.T. Miller continue to gel with the likes of Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser.

“We’re all on the same page and that’s so important,” Hughes said. “Our five-man unit was going to get better as the season went on as we figured out what each other were thinking and the chemistry continues to grow. We all have our one or two or three plays that we’re doing, so everyone on the ice can react. We’ve been dialled in.”

And the ceiling may not have even been reached yet, according to Vancouver’s coach.

“There’s a lot of skill on that unit,” said Travis Green. “They can make plays and a lot of those young guys are still learning about the power play and its nuances.”

Putting together silky plays in the NHL was never going to be a problem for Hughes, however. As a sophomore at the University of Michigan, he was a point-per-game player for the Wolverines and before that, he was a standout offensive defenseman for the U.S. National Team Development Program. Now listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, Hughes’ challenge was always going to be the rough-and-tumble aspect of the NHL. So far, he has passed that test with flying colors and going up against a burly Blues squad bent on making him pay the price merely gives him another hurdle to cleanly vault.

“You’ve gotta be mentally tough,” Hughes said. “It’s a physical sport and everyone wants to win. Honestly, it’s kind of an honor that they’re going to key in on me – that’s how I take it. I know I have teammates that have my back, so at the end of the day I just have to play my game to the best of my ability and they’re going to do what they need to do.”

And the Blues will have to do a lot more if they hope to avoid an upset at the hands of the upstart Canucks. Hughes has looked even better in the early goings of the post-season than he did in the regular season and that’s high praise considering he could very well win that Calder Trophy. The time off in the spring was clearly used well by the youngster and as he and the Canucks continue to come together, they’re going to be a contender sooner than later. Heck, with high-end players such as Hughes playing at such an advanced level, they might already be there.