Michigan coach Mel Pearson often says Quinn Hughes is worth the price of admission alone.
The sophomore defenseman — the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft — seems to have an eye-popping play in every game for the No. 14 Michigan hockey team. Whether he’s dangling the puck between a defender’s legs on a breakout or finding a teammate in the perfect spot for a goal, Hughes’ dynamic playmaking is key for the Wolverines.
In this weekend’s series against Michigan State, Hughes continued his trend of offensive production. As more of a two-way defenseman than a lockdown blueliner, Hughes is noted for his ability in the offensive zone.
In Friday night’s game at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing, Hughes notched three assists — one on each goal Michigan scored for a season-high tally. It’s his second three-assist game this season and the third time he has scored three points in a night.
“It’s hard to prepare (for Hughes) because it’s not that it’s unorthodox, (but) he’s very creative,” said Michigan State coach Danton Cole. “He attacks you at different angles. He puts you on different things. You just have to be aware of him and you try not to get him loose. Quinn’s very good with the puck, and his feet are outstanding, and you throw an elite brain in there. … He’s fun watching play, and he’s hard to keep an eye on.”
The Spartans seemed to keep a better eye on Hughes on Saturday night as he tallied just one point. But it was a big one.
On the power play in the first period, Hughes sent a pass through all four of Michigan State’s penalty killers and found senior defenseman Nick Boka in the left circle. Boka’s slapshot beat the sprawling goaltender Drew DeRidder, and Michigan took the lead, 1-0.
“(Hughes) made an amazing pass,” Boka said. “I was just lucky to be in that far side and just try to get it to the goal, and lucky enough, it went in.”
Hughes now leads the Wolverines in points with 19 — two more than sophomore forward Josh Norris. His offensive production ranks ninth in the nation overall and ranks third among defensemen.
But on the defensive side of the ice, Hughes’ production hasn’t been as consistent.
In Friday’s game, he was on the ice for three of the Spartans’ four goals and he ranks last on the team in plus-minus with a minus-six rating.
“It is what it is,” Hughes said Friday. “Obviously, I don’t want to be on the ice for any goals, but I’ll go watch the tapes and I’ll look at it tomorrow. Hopefully, tomorrow, I can maybe have the three assists without being on the ice for any goals.”
While Hughes only had one assist Saturday, rather than the three he hoped for, his defensive skills were more prominent.
Late in the third period, the game was tied at one goal apiece. It seemed that at any moment either team could break the stalemate and win the game. Michigan State forward Tommy Apap was coming down the right side of the ice toward freshman goaltender Strauss Mann with just Hughes in between. Hughes skated in and broke up the play, preventing Apap from having a chance at the game-winning goal.
Minutes later in overtime, Hughes again prevented a goal, this time by poke-checking the puck away from forward Patrick Khodorenko.
“Hughes had a really solid game,” Pearson said. “He gives you everything he has, plays a lot of minutes and is a game breaker. He’s a difference maker. He’s worth the price of admission. You don’t have to be a hockey genius to walk in the building and see really who the best player is, the player who controls the play.”
While Hughes controlled the play Saturday, it came in contrast to his defensive performance Friday. Michigan as a whole was stronger defensively Saturday night, and Hughes’ increased effort may be the key.
Pearson has spoken numerous times this season about needing defensive commitment and consistency, and Saturday’s performance may well serve as a confidence boost for an often-maligned defense. The Wolverines held Michigan State to just 18 shots in regulation.
And while Hughes has lit up the stat sheet offensively, his defensive commitment has taken longer to come through.
But if he finds that consistency, it could be a difference-maker for Michigan.