Did The Red Wings Miss On Quinn Hughes? He's Over It Now.

It looks like a gaffe by the former regime.

Will Burchfield
October 23, 2019 - 11:16 am

© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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Somewhere in his mind, perhaps during the game, maybe after it, Jeff Blashill had to be thinking back to the player he always knew. Certainly before the Red Wings’ 5-2 loss to the Canucks on Tuesday night, Quinn Hughes was a topic of conversation. He’s been a talking point throughout this young season in Vancounver, where most recently, Canucks head coach Travis Green said Tuesday morning, the team has tried to temper expectations. That’s how well the rookie defenseman has played so far.

Hughes wouldn’t make that any easier on the Canucks Tuesday night. With Vancouver trailing 2-0 entering the third, he assisted on a pair of power play goals within the first three minutes to set the table for the team’s comeback win. The win pushed Vancouver to 6-3 on the season, and pushed the ceiling for Hughes higher yet. On the heels of a promising cameo last season, Hughes looks like a burgeoning top-pair defenseman, just a year after the Canucks drafted him seventh overall. One pick earlier, the Red Wings took Filip Zadina.

Blashill didn’t know a whole lot about Zadina prior to the 2018 draft, other than whew, boy the kid could shoot. This is how it goes in the NHL. Given the constraints of the calendar, head coaches aren’t all that involved in amateur scouting. But Blashill had the “unique opportunity,” he acknowledged Tuesday morning, to coach Hughes on the US team at the 2018 World Championships, just a month before the draft. And here’s what he knew about Hughes then.

“The one thing about Quinn is, when I watched him I thought to myself, ‘That’s a skillset that’s transferable (to the NHL),’” Blashill said. “Some guys are really good players in college or junior, but maybe they’re not explosive enough or maybe they’re not big enough or maybe they’re not fast enough.

“His skillset, for me, was transferable because he is super explosive. I mean, super explosive. It wasn’t explosive for college hockey, it wasn’t explosive for the World Championships. It’s explosive with the best players in the world.”

Over the three weeks he watched Quinn play, Blashill also noticed his quickly-improving shot. He figured it would continue to get better as Quinn, then 18, put on more strength. Early in the third period Tuesday night, Quinn, quarterbacking the Canucks’ power play, snuck a quick slap shot on goal from the point, creating a rebound that was knocked in by Bo Horvat. Back on the power play less than two minutes later, Quinn wound up and fired, this time with all he had, and Horvat was there again to deflect it home.

Quinn finished the night with his second multi-point game of the season and a plus-two rating over 18:37, actually a decrease from the 20:27 he’s averaged thus far. He’s played eight games, his coach said beforehand, and eight good ones. This one made it nine.   

“I really liked Quinn when I had him,” Blashill said. “He did a really good job for us. Could I have predicted he’s top-four (defenseman) a year later with a team that’s wining? I don’t know that you can ever predict that for certain, but I like a couple things about Quinn. He cares a ton and he loves hockey. He wants to be a hockey player, he’s got big-time passion for hockey and he’s willing to get better.

“If you care a ton and you work at it and you’re willing to listen and get better, you’re going to maximize your ability. And that’s what Quinn does. I’m a big fan of Quinn’s."

As the draft was approaching in 2018, there was a clear-cut top two in Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov. Quinn was pegged to go anywhere between third overall and tenth. Blashill, who roomed Quinn with Dylan Larkin at the World Championships, where the two quickly became friends, filed a report on the young defenseman for Ken Holland, then stepped aside. He wouldn’t be raising his voice in meetings or banging the table on draft night. He had made his pitch, and that might be a strong word in the first place.

For what it’s worth, Quinn to the Wings made a whole lot of sense. Detroit was in need of more blue-chippers on defense, with Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek at the time still uncertain prospects. At forward, meanwhile, the pipeline was in pretty good shape. There were doubts that Quinn would still be on the board at No. 6, but perhaps the stars would align for the U-Michigan product to join "Blash and Larks," as he now calls them, in Detroit. Turns out, it was never meant to be.

“I was kind of told a couple days earlier that I wasn’t going to be going to the Red Wings,” Quinn said Tuesday. “So I just wrapped my head around that.”

The word came from his agent, Quinn said. He took it with a grain of salt, given all the mixed messaging that happens prior to the draft, but it proved to be true. And if he ever harbored any hopes of playing for the Wings, he’s let go of them since.

Asked if he was disappointed to learn Detroit had no plans to draft him, Quinn looked toward the floor, clearly averse to revisiting the past, and said flatly, “It doesn’t matter, because it was two years ago and I’m thrilled to be in Vancouver and I haven’t thought about it.”

The Red Wings have moved on, too. They were thrilled that night to land Zadina, a natural goal scorer who was expected to be gone in the first three or four picks, and they continue to profess faith in him despite his slow start in the AHL. Had Blashill gotten an up-close look at Zadina prior to the draft, who’s to say he wouldn’t have come away similarly impressed? No, Zadina doesn’t skate like Quinn, doesn’t have the same explosiveness, but he boasts a big-time shot that should soon do damage in the NHL.

“Listen, I saw one guy a lot and a whole bunch of guys not very much. How can I have a real grasp on comparables and things like that?” Blashill said. “And I also don’t think you should judge drafts after two years. I think you should judge them after five, six, seven years. But that’s true across the industry – (head coaches) go to the draft table and we sit there and listen. … The guys that see the players all the time make the judgements.”

At the risk of ignoring Blashill’s caution, the Red Wings’ outlook on defense is decidedly brighter than it was a year ago. Cholowski is finding himself in the NHL, Hronek looks like a star on the rise, and early opinions are high on 2019 sixth overall pick Moritz Seider. In hindsight, passing on Quinn might not be so crippling. Then again, imagine the outlook with Quinn included. He turned 20 last week and has a good shot to spend the duration of this season in the NHL.

Just four defensemen 20 or younger did that last season: Dahlin for the Sabres, Miro Heiskanen for the Stars, Samuel Girard for the Avs and Mikhail Sergachev for the Lightning, a quartet of building blocks for their respective teams. Hughes could be something similar for Vancouver.

“He makes everyone (around him) better, not just top-end guys,” Green said. “He helps our breakouts, our transition game. When he’s fresh, he’s defended really well. We’ve played him against top lines and he’s done a good job so far. He’s a smart kid, and not just offensively. He’s smart defensively, uses his edges well, his stick well. We just have to let him keep playing and keep getting better.”

It’s too early to say Hughes has made it. It’s too early, even, to say he’s arrived for good. Cholowski looked like he was here to stay in the first month of last season, before hitting a wall and spending a good chunk of time in the NHL. Hronek, on the other hand, looked out of place to start, only to emerge as Detroit’s best defenseman by season’s end. And let’s not forget about Zadina in the larger equation; he doesn’t turn 20 until next month.

But if there’s a lesson to be learned already, one the NHL has made awfully clear in recent years, it’s to place a premium on skating ability among young players -- especially young defensemen. Maybe, if Steve Yzerman had taken over for Holland by 2018, the Wings would have approached the draft with that in mind. And maybe Hughes would be in Detroit now, saying more things like this just a few weeks into his rookie season.

“I feel really comfortable and I feel really good, as comfortable as you feel. It’s still really fast and hard, and the word I’ve been thinking of is urgency. You can’t lose that. Yes, I feel comfortable, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not being urgent out there,” he said.

The wait will continue for Zadina, and hopes will remain high. He’ll got another shot in Detroit this season, and ideally he’ll make this one count. We’re barely a year removed from the 2018 draft. We should listen to Blashill and wait at least three years more before drawing any conclusions. But right now, it feels like a shame the Wings didn’t listen more closely to Blashill at first.

“His skating was super explosive, he’s a good athlete and his technique on his shooting was good, so it doesn’t surprise me that Quinn’s having lots of success,” said Blashill. “Again, you can never predict for sure, but it doesn’t surprise me at all.”