May 25th, 2024

Norris Trophy favourites Hughes, Josi headline Canucks-Predators playoff series

By Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press on April 20, 2024.

Vancouver Canucks' Quinn Hughes watches the puck as he skates during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames in Vancouver, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Vancouver Canucks coach Rick Tocchet knows the Nashville Predators are looking for ways to shut down his star defenceman.

He and his staff are doing the same to the Predators

The work isn’t easy, though. Starting on Sunday, the first-round playoff series between the Canucks and Predators pits two favourites for this year’s Norris Trophy – awarded to the NHL’s top defenceman – against one another.

“In one series, you’ve got two of the best defencemen in the league right now,” Tocchet said.

Canucks captain Quinn Hughes finished the regular season with 92 points (17 goals, 75 assists), first in the league among defencemen. Nashville’s Roman Josi was third with 85 (23 goals, 62 assists).

Sandwiched in between was Colorado Avalanche blue-liner Cale Makar with 90 (21 goals, 69 assists).

“I’m sure they’re game planning Hughes and we’re game planning Josi,” Tocchet said. “Big-game planning against those guys. They’re that good.”

Hughes and Josi are different players, said Predators coach Andrew Brunette, but both are offensive and dynamic.

“Quinn’s game is evolving,” said Brunette, who coached Hughes’ younger brother Jack with the New Jersey Devils last season.

“I think (Josi) has maybe been around a little bit longer and we maybe take him for granted a little bit throughout the league. To see it first-hand this year, I’m pretty fortunate to be on the bench and watch it. Best seat in the house.”

Now in his 13th season, Josi has long been one of the league’s top blue liners and won the Norris in 2020. The 33-year-old had his second-highest point total this year and matched the most goals he’s scored in a campaign.

“Josi is unbelievable. And he’s done it for so long,” Hughes said. “He’s just kind of a horse. He drives his team, he’s always up in the play, he’s got a great shot, he’s competitive. “¦ So he’s, I don’t know, 33, 34, playing at maybe the highest level he’s played at. So we’re going to have to be on him.”

Hughes, playing in his fifth full NHL season, hit a franchise high in points by a defenceman to break the record he set last year.

“(Hughes is) fun to watch. I love watching him play,” Josi said. “He’s unbelievable on his edges, the way he skates and sees the game. It’s a lot of fun to watch and he’s had an amazing year . . . and it’s going to be fun to play against.”

Luke Schenn now a teammate of Josi in Nashville was often paired with Hughes during his time in Vancouver. Schenn sees similarities in their skills, including how they both control the game.

Schenn said “everything” about Hughes’ game has grown since his debut back in 2019.

“He’s playing, I don’t even know, 25-plus minutes a night, against heavy matchups, first lines,” Schenn said of the 24-year-old American.

“We knew how he could run a power play off the start, how he could work the offensive zone blue line, but I think that’s got a lot better in terms of his shooting. You’ve seen how many goals he’s put up. Just defending harder, he’s more experienced, he’s getting a little stronger there, and doesn’t lose too many battles. He’s a great skater, closes plays in a hurry.”

Both Hughes and Josi know they’re Norris Trophy contenders, but it’s not something either think about as they prepare for playoffs.

“It’s always a huge honour to be in the conversation,” Josi said. “I think he had a great year and I had a great year. Whoever wins it doesn’t take away from the other guy.

“But now it’s playoff time. Once the puck drops, it’s Preds against Vancouver and I think both of us want to win the series. That’s all that’s on our minds.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2024.

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