One hand carried his stick. The other rose to his lips, motioning outward in a big, exaggerated wave as he glided to a stop in the corner of the rink.
Cam York had skated down the ice at Yost Ice Arena — empty to all except the Michigan hockey team and a few spectators. The team was practicing a continuous two-on-zero drill, and the freshman defenseman received the puck at the blue line. Skating toward the goaltender, he shot the puck and found the back of the net.
And then came the celebration — the blow of an unmistakable kiss to a nonexistent crowd.
He pretended to bathe in the limelight before continuing to practice.
But make no mistake. Where there was emptiness, there will soon be a crowd, shouting and cheering in response to his celebration. After all, people had done the very same a year before for Quinn Hughes — the player York is expected to replace.
And it’s hard to not compare the two. They were both highly-touted defenseman who were products of the U.S. National Team Development Program. They were both first-round picks, and they were both similar-framed offensive-minded players that everyone pointed to as difference makers.
But despite their similarities, Cam York is no Quinn Hughes.
“I don’t think there has to be this big ‘Oh, Cam and Quinn’ thing,” said senior defenseman Luke Martin. “Because they’re different players.”
Cam York, in his final year with USNTDP, set the record for amount of points tallied by a defenseman with 65 points. His skill set includes his vision and passing abilities, but his shot is also at an elite level.
“Cam? … He is,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson when asked if York was a pass-first defenseman. “But he can score too. Like I’m just watching today, and he’s so smooth. He’s got a really good stick. I think Yorkie set the all-time record (at the USNTDP) as far as points. There’s a reason for that.”
His ability to create on offense is one of his strong suits, and subsequently, people expected him to fill the role left by Hughes. But there are differences in their approach.
Whereas Hughes would be a puck-centric top-tier skater, preferring to bring the puck through the zones himself, York likes to pass the puck around in give-and-go type fashion and then push forward without the puck.
“Cam will pass and follow up ice,” Pearson said. “Cam’s not afraid to just move it up and then join the rush but Quinn liked to have it on his stick, maybe leading the rush.”
And the different styles of bringing the puck forward furthers their differences as players.
As a result of carrying the puck through the zone, Hughes jeopardizes his defensive positioning in ways York doesn’t.
“Yorkie’s a little different though,” Pearson said. “I don’t think he’s as — I don’t want to say high-risk, that’s not the right way to put it, but (not) looking to get up the ice as much. Cam will join, but he’s not leading.”
Hughes would dominate the puck and lead the offense. Players and coaches alike knew that, leading them to pair him with someone who knew the way Hughes liked to play and cover for his displacement — a player who was more defensive-minded and didn’t like to push up. And as a result of his far-up positioning, Hughes’ defense was spotty, ending the season with a plus/minus of negative-two despite leading the team in points.
On the other hand, York has the option to sit at the blue line and watch the play develop. It prevents him from jeopardizing his positioning as someone who doesn’t push with the puck.
“Cam is really strong defensively,” Martin said. “I’m playing on him in practice right now. And we were working really well together on the blue line.”
York’s role is to support, and not spearhead the offense.
“I think the main thing that (differentiates them) is Quinn was more the skater,” Pearson said. “And where York’s more, ‘Well, I’m going to give you that pass even if it’s a short pass I’m going to give it to you.’ ”
And even though he’s pitted to take on the responsibilities that Hughes once held, Pearson thinks it will take time for York to transition into that spot. After all, Hughes was a second-year defenseman with collegiate experience under his belt. But Martin doesn’t see it that way.
“For him, I don’t think he has to be focused on replacing anyone,” Martin said. “I think you know, he’s a great player, and he does things really well. And I think he needs to continue to do those really well, for us.
“But I think for him, just, you know, not really listening to any of this outside noise.”
It’s not the outside noise he’s trying to hear, but the noise inside of Yost. And with every goal scored and kiss blown, it’ll come.