A key tenet of Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic’s roster development strategy is to build through the draft. This keeps costs low by providing the club with cost-controlled assets for several years and it gives leverage to the front office during contract negotiations with veterans on expiring contracts. Specifically, there’s an expectation for the early draft picks to assist with the latter point. 2019 NCAA Freshman of the Year and top Avalanche prospect, center Alex Newhook, is well on his way to accomplishing that after just one season in college hockey.
The Wonder Years
Newhook was selected with the 16th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft after an explosive 2018-19 season in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) with the Victoria Grizzlies. He was the league’s leading scorer, scoring 102 points in 53 games, and was named BCHL MVP, the first time since 2001 that a member of the Grizzlies won the honor.
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Assuming that there is a 2020-21 NCAA men’s ice hockey season, Newhook is returning to Boston College to join teammate and fellow Avalanche prospect Drew Helleson in their quest for a national championship. He’ll look to build on a wildly successful 2019-20 freshman season that saw him score the seventh-most points in the NCAA Division 1 (19 goals, 23 assists, 42 points, plus-28). He won National Freshman of the Year award by leading all U-20 skaters in scoring.
Newhook is an incredible skater, comfortable shooting at top speed like Nate MacKinnon is. Prior to last season’s draft, prospect analysts pegged him as the draft’s second-fastest skater behind only top overall pick Jack Hughes.
His decisiveness and agility at speed make him the stuff of nightmares for opposing defenses. Despite his goal-scoring mentality, he puts his wings in position to score, as evidenced by his balanced scoring through juniors and last season at BC.
Room for Improvement
The Avs are in constant contact with Newhook throughout the season, and he attended the club’s development camp right after he was drafted last summer, so the coaching staff knows him and his abilities. I would like to see Newhook better develop in two areas in 2020-21, both of which are key expectations for Avs forwards. First, his back- and forechecking need more consistency. He doesn’t necessarily take shifts off, but I see him sometimes halfway committed to pinching on the boards to double up on a streaking winger.
Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar requires his forwards to press in the offensive third and come back to support the blueliners in the Avs’ zone. Putting bodies on bodies and blocking passing lanes disrupt the opponents’ transition game out of their own end and lessens their ability to produce quality scoring chances. Coming into the 2021-22 Avs training camp possessing more NHL-caliber skills will only increase the coaching staff’s confidence in their prized prospect.
The second aspect is making sure he’s extending his game from goal-line to goal-line. Fortunately for Newhook, he has one of the NHL’s best transition centers from whom to learn: MacKinnon. When there’s an Avs turnover in the offensive zone, MacKinnon can start from behind the opponent’s net and beat the other team back into his own zone.
He’ll seamlessly transition from an all-out sprint down the middle to back-checker on the blue line. Suddenly he’ll double team an opponent behind the net in a scrum for control of the puck and just as quickly, accelerate up to top speed to join the Avs’ rush going back the other way. In the video below, look from where MacKinnon starts skating and where he receives the puck.
He doesn’t touch it until he’s near mid-ice, but he started the play from behind the goal-line. MacKinnon is so fast and fit that he’s almost impossible to adequately defend, and it all starts with the mentality that he’s an end-to-end player.
Newhook already possesses the elite speed and fitness to perform in a similar manner, so it’s really just a matter of him making it a habit to play coast-to-coast. He can shift to wing if the Avs think his game is more suitable for the space in between the faceoff circles, as some have suggested anyway. Top Avs prospect Shane Bowers made the move to wing this past fall in the AHL, and he turned into a point per game player thereafter at only 20 years old in the NHL’s top minor league.
The Business of Hockey
Newhook’s earliest possible landing date in Colorado is at the start of the 2021-22 season. By then, the Avalanche’s roster will look different than it does now. Over the next two offseasons, the front office has over 25 restricted, unrestricted, and non-roster free agents with which to deal. All of the club’s bottom-six forwards may have different homes by the start of the 2021-22 season.
It’s too early to say for certain who will go, but the club will have a lot of flexibility come contract talk time with veterans. Top prospects Newhook, Bowers, and Martin Kaut are seeking full-time roles with the Avs over the next two seasons. Younger and less developed prospects like Alex Beaucage, Sasha Mutala, and Sampo Ranta may possibly arrive by 2023-24.
Table 1 below lists the Avs’ bottom-six forwards and when they’ll hit either restricted or unrestricted free agency. The Avs are in pretty good shape this offseason with an expected surplus of $6-8 million after extending and non-tendering its own free agents. Another thing to keep in mind is the 2021 Seattle Kraken expansion draft during which the Avs may lose one of Tyson Jost or J.T. Compher.
Table 1. Avalanche Bottom Six Forwards during the 2019-20 season
|Jost, Tyson||C, LW, RW||22||RFA 2020|
|Namestnikov, Vladislav||RW, LW, C||27||UFA 2020|
|Bellemare, Pierre-Édouard||LW, C||35||UFA 2021|
|Calvert, Matt||LW, RW||30||UFA 2021|
|Donskoi, Joonas||RW||28||UFA 2023|
|Compher, J.T.||RW, C||25||UFA 2023|
Newhook has more scoring potential than any of the above players, but he’s also bringing at least a season’s worth of penalty-kill experience with him to Denver. In 2019-20, BC led the nation with 10 shorthanded goals, three of which came from Newhook himself, also tops in the country. Considering that most of the Avs’ bottom-six forwards play serious minutes on the kill unit, Newhook’s arrival may not cause a disruption on special teams.
The Avs may acquire a middle-six forward after this season who will most likely push Val Nichushkin down to the third scoring line. I think Newhook will begin his Avalanche career centering that line in between Nichushkin and left-wing Bowers. Nichushkin is the Avs’ best defensive forward and would add some needed size and balance to the trio.
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With Namestnikov and Compher (or Jost) possibly gone, stocking the third line in two seasons with Bowers’ and Newhook’s offensive upside will solidify the notion that the Avs have three bonafide scoring lines. Longer-term, Newhook is a top-line forward with the flexibility to play both wing and center. He will push for the second-line center or top-line left-wing position as he matures into an organizational building-block.
Sakic hit a massive home run in selecting Newhook in last season’s draft. His 2019-20 season at Boston College surpassed expectations because he came from a weaker juniors league than those in the CHL. Much of his game is NHL-ready, but to play heavy minutes for one of the league’s best clubs, he’ll need to refine some aspects of his game. Newhook represents the latest elite homegrown talent that Sakic has utilized to build a top team in strong financial health ready to perennially challenge for the Stanley Cup.