Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes has a big decision to make.
The 18-year-old, who led all Big Ten freshman defenseman with 29 points (five goals, 24 assists) last season, is contemplating whether to return to Michigan for his sophomore season or sign an entry-level contract with the Vancouver Canucks, the team that selected him seventh overall in last month’s NHL draft.
“I’ve got a lot of smart people around me,” Hughes told reporters at Canucks prospects camp last week. “The mindset they’ve kind of been telling me is ‘just put your head down, get to work.’ I’ve seen lots of high picks fold. For me, I just want to continue to get better.
“There’s pro and cons to every situation, (but) I don’t think there’s a con playing in the NHL. Whatever happens, I’m going to look at the positive side.”
Hughes believes he can play in the NHL right now, but also understands there are not many 18-year-olds making an impact in the league.
However, the smooth-skating defenseman has shown he can hold his own against top competition. He was the only college player on the U.S. roster at the World Championship in May, where he recorded two assists in 10 games.
He continued to impress at Vancouver’s prospect camp July 3-5.
“His transition game is really where he’s going to prove his speed,” Vancouver goalie prospect Michael DiPietro said at camp. “It’s in the way he can evade checks. And then there’s the way he patrols the blue-line.
“He can quickly change angles on goalies. We have a competition out there to see if he can score on me. With his shot, he likes to use the change-up sometimes it seems.”
If Hughes signs with the Canucks and the team determines he is not ready to play at the AHL level, the Orlando, Florida native likely would spend the season in the American Hockey League, where he would make significantly less than if he was on an NHL roster.
The maximum entry level NHL salary is $925,000, while the AHL maximum is $70,000. If Hughes were to spend most of the year in the AHL, returning to Michigan might be the best option, where he could develop into his 5-foot-10, 175-pound frame and improve defensively for a Wolverines team returning many key pieces from last season’s Frozen Four run.
“We’re talking to our coaches, talking to Pat Brisson (Hughes’ agent), and we want to figure out what’s the best thing for Quinn in his long-term development,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said last week. “We know he’s going to be a special player for us for a long time. We also have to do what’s right in his development.”
Before the draft, Michigan coach Mel Pearson said Hughes would be a strong Hobey Baker Award candidate if he returned.
“Could he step in and play in the NHL, I think he probably could,” Pearson said. “Is he ready to handle an 82-game schedule, is he ready to handle the off-ice and all of the free time, how far can he move the dial for a team?
“He could step in and be a good player on a team, no doubt about that. But can he be stronger, can he be more ready? I would say yes by coming back to Michigan and having a Hobey Baker-type year.”
Hughes’ decision could come as early as this week.
“They have a plan here and I have to respect that,” Hughes said of the Vancouver organization. “I wouldn’t mind going back to Michigan, if they didn’t know where I fit in. But I’m a pretty confident kid and confident in my abilities. I want to believe I can play in the NHL, but it’s a really hard league.
“Playing at college again wouldn’t be the worst thing.”