After a long drawn-out waiting period, former Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri inked a new contract with the Calgary Flames, ending a fruitful three-year spell with the reigning Stanley Cup champions. While most teams would cringe at the idea of losing an 87-point player who was named an All-Star for nothing, the Avalanche are unlike other teams in the NHL. In 21-year-old Alex Newhook, they have a ready-made replacement who was drafted with the belief that he would one day assume the role of second-line center. With Kadri’s free-agent exit, that day has arrived. Let’s dig into why the Avalanche’s blossoming pivot is set to enjoy a productive breakout campaign in 2022-23.
Kadri’s Departure Leaves Big Hole in Avalanche Lineup
Regardless of your opinion on Kadri’s ability to repeat his 2021-22 performance, there is no doubt that his absence leaves a big hole down the middle of the ice. He scored at the 16th highest point-per-game (P/G) rate among NHL skaters and was just as effective on the defensive side of the puck with his tenacity and two-way prowess. By his ice time last season, he was one of the most trusted Avalanche forwards, especially when Nathan MacKinnon missed time throughout the campaign.
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At first glance, the power play is where most of the newly-available ice time comes from, given that Kadri even outstripped MacKinnon with the man advantage. He was rarely used on the penalty kill, but routinely enjoyed top-six deployment at even strength. After being rewarded with sizeable new contracts, playoff heroes Valeri Nichushkin and Artturi Lehkonen should receive a bigger slice of ice time, but there is more than enough to go around.
Working in Newhook’s favour is that he is one of the only natural centers on the roster, which gives him an upper hand in the battle for playing time, even if he has spent most of his young NHL career on the wing. As the data shows, he has the tools to make the transition to center permanent during his sophomore campaign.
Newhook’s Strengths Mesh Well With the Avalanche’s System
As the league has come to learn in recent years, the Avalanche play a relentless, fast-paced game built upon speed and precision in transition. According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, Newhook is best positioned to succeed of the potential candidates to take Kadri’s mantle as the second-line center.
Last season, Newhook completed a controlled zone entry on 63.2 percent of his successful attempts, facilitating a majority of his entries while maintaining control of the puck rather than resorting to a wasteful dump-in. His conversion rate ranked fifth among Avalanche forwards, with Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Andre Burakovsky as two members of the top five who are no longer with the organization. In terms of workload, Newhook completed a league-average rate of zone entries of any fashion per-60-minutes, so it remains to be seen whether his success translates to higher usage.
Although Newhook didn’t produce above-average rates of shot assists (last pass before a shot is taken), one area he did thrive in was his ability to wriggle into dangerous areas. Sznajder’s data positioned the burgeoning forward as the most productive Avalanche forward in terms of his shots per-60 off of high-danger passes, which are those coming from behind the net or across the slot. Theoretically, those are the most difficult shots for goalies to stop since they force the netminder to move out of their set position, making them less likely to recover in time. Fortunately for him, the Avalanche boast no shortage of players who rank near the top of the league in terms of making such passes, which should result in his scoring totals skyrocketing if he gets favourable usage and deployment.
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Although Newhook has occasionally shown why he is highly regarded in NHL circles, it would be dishonest to dismiss Kadri’s on-ice impact last season. He helped facilitate the team’s transition game when the usual stars were off the ice, and consistently carved out high-danger chances with ease. Even if he never approaches the highs of the 2021-22 season, his offensive eruption came on the back of pristine underlying metrics and wasn’t solely the result of unsustainable shooting percentages. Newhook may one day reach that level, but he has yet to take such a big leap in his development.
Newhook & Compher Battle for the Second-Line Center Role
At this point in time, the Avalanche have not signed any of the centers still available in free agency, earmarking one of Newhook or utility-man J.T. Compher for the second-line center role. If the organization decides to go with the individual with more recent success, Compher maintains the inside track for an extended look higher in the lineup given his strong playoff performance. His tally of eight points in 20 appearances during the Avalanche’s Cup run is unremarkable, but almost all of his five postseason goals were momentum-shifting tallies.
After Kadri was temporarily knocked out of the lineup as a result of a dangerous hit from Evander Kane, head coach Jared Bednar turned to Compher to fill the void. Over the course of the playoffs, he averaged 12:28 of even-strength ice time (seventh among Avalanche forwards), 41 seconds per game of shorthanded usage (seventh), and just under 14 minutes in all situations (seventh). The only game state in which Newhook saw greater usage than Compher was on the power play, where the rookie forward received about half of a minute more per game than his veteran counterpart.
What is likely to settle this debate – at least in the long term – is the age and contract discrepancy between the pair. Newhook enters the 2022-23 season at 21 years of age, while Compher is 27 as of opening night. Further, the younger Newhook has one year remaining on his entry-level contract (ELC) but remains under team control for several more seasons. In comparison, Compher is set to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) next summer and could command a deal in the neighbourhood of his current $3.5 million per year pact, especially after another strong postseason. Newhook represents a younger, more cost-effective option who is moving towards, rather than away from his peak years of performance, unlike Compher who may never hold as much value as he does at this present moment.
Unless the Avalanche swing a trade for a rental (Vancouver Canucks’ J.T. Miller anyone?), the battle for the role of second-line center should be contested between Newhook and Compher. A strong case can be made for both to assume the position, but it’s likely that neither maintains a stranglehold on the top-six assignment.
Newhook Poised for Breakout 2022-23 Season
Whether Newhook is immediately handed the second-line center role or left to marinate as a middle-six winger for most of next season, he stands to benefit from Kadri’s departure in free agency. The 31-year-old leaves behind a cushy gig as one of the Avalanche’s most relied upon players on the power play, setting the stage for a heated audition for a regular spot alongside Colorado’s cast of talented stars. In line with other young players making their way in the professional sphere, Newhook has struggled for consistency as he tries to cement his place in the Avalanche lineup. Still, his poise with the puck and commitment to Colorado’s gameplan catapults him higher up the list of bubbling breakout stars for the 2022-23 season. Can he make the most of the opportunity? Only time will tell.