Should the Avalanche Use Newhook as Top Center Until MacKinnon Returns?

The Colorado Avalanche have won five straight games, so changing up lines will not be the most pressing matter for head coach Jared Bednar right now. In the absence of Nathan MacKinnon, and regular fill-in forward J.T. Compher, the Avs have turned to Logan O’Connor to play on their first line.

The undrafted forward has done nothing wrong, although it is clear that he has limitations. On top of those, his move up the lineup has seen Mikko Rantanen assume center duties, which has been ok, but no better, and you do have to wonder how this would suit the Finn had the Avalanche played better opponents recently. Although not the best in the league, games against Anaheim, Dallas and Nashville this week, do bring something tougher to the table.

So, with that in mind, and a tougher schedule to come, should the Avalanche look to make a change on the first line by moving up Alex Newhook?

The youngster scored the game-winner in the victory over Ottawa on Monday night and has looked comfortable and full of confidence since his return from an American Hockey League (AHL) stint. In the short term at least, is now his chance to shine?

The Pros to Moving Newhook onto the Top Line

The biggest reason to move Newhook onto the top line is to give him a taste of what is to come. He won’t replace MacKinnon in the long term but will be a key piece in the top-six moving forward.

Moving him would also take away the added pressure currently on Rantanen to be a center, as Newhook is a natural at that position, allowing Rantanen to play his own game.  During this current five-game win streak, Rantanen has accumulated eight points, an impressive haul, and one that shows the move to center duties hasn’t harmed him, on the face of it, at least.

Mikko Rantanen Colorado Avalanche
Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, of those eight points, four have come on the power play, something that has been rolling in MacKinnon’s absence, and something that is feeding Rantanen even more at the moment, due to no MacKinnon. Three of his four goals have come on the power play too, leaving Rantanen with just one goal at even strength from the past five games.

On the surface, Rantanen has moved to center with no issues at all, however, a deeper look shows that things haven’t been perfect, and power-play numbers have helped to cover that up. This isn’t a dig at Rantanen in any way but does show that at even strength, he’s not been as dominant as his overall numbers would suggest.

With the team rolling, Newhook full of confidence himself, and on the back of a game-winning goal, now seems an ideal time to throw him in, and get Rantanen producing at even strength from the wing.

The Cons and Why the Avalanche Should Stick with Newhook

There is, of course, another side to this argument. Newhook is in his first full season in the NHL, he played one game at the start of the season and on the back of an average performance, and a fairly poor preseason, he was sent down to the AHL to try and find some form and confidence.

Newhook’s play since returning to the NHL has been much better, highlighted by his game-winner in the wild game against Ottawa. He seems to have found a place, where he can play well and thrive, but not be pushed into a role that is too demanding, and that has been on the third line with Tyson Jost and newcomer Nicolas Aube-Kubel, a line that has helped to finally bring depth scoring to the team.

The buzz around Newhook is down to his potential, and the fact that people see him as a long-term piece of this Avalanche team. With that in mind, why should a short-term goal be focused on here, which may put a long-term piece in a position he isn’t comfortable with, something that could affect his development. MacKinnon is expected to play in early December on the road, so if Newhook moves, we are only looking at a small number of games.

What Will the Avalanche Do?

The best guess is that the Avs will do nothing due to their winning streak unless something happens before MacKinnon’s return that forces their hand. This could be a bad play, a loss, another injury or a breakout from Newhook that is too good to ignore.

Should any of those happen, we may well see a cameo appearance on the top line from the 20-year-old and if that happens, plenty of eyes will be on him. However, don’t be too disheartened if it doesn’t happen, because there is a long-term plan with Newhook, and we are only in the first chapter of his time with the Avalanche.