The 2022-23 NHL season is in full swing and the Colorado Avalanche are nine games into their Stanley Cup defence, sporting a mediocre record of 4-4-1 through the month of October. More concerning than that is the play of the three candidates propped up to replace the impact and production of the outgoing Nazem Kadri, who inked a long-term contract with the Calgary Flames during this past offseason. The 31-year-old center is off to a flying start by tallying nine points in seven games, which is in direct contrast to the numbers put up by the trio of Alex Newhook, J.T. Compher, and Evan Rodrigues.
All three have played in the Avalanche’s first eight games and have combined for five goals and a single assist between them, with Kadri surpassing their collective point total in the early going. It’s only fair to note that they should be afforded the time to adjust to increased roles (especially the 21-year-old Newhook) and that Gabriel Landeskog hasn’t played this season, but the initial results have not been reassuring.
Truthfully, all three are better suited for depth roles among the bottom-six forwards at this point, bringing up the need – and desire – to look for external solutions by way of the trade market. Fortunately for general manager Chris McFarland, several competent centermen are playing on teams already off to poor starts or likely to fall off as the season progresses, giving him at least three potential trade candidates to pursue.
The Avalanche have their own first-round pick in the next three drafts – and their second-round selection in 2025 – and have several intriguing prospects in their system who could be part of a potential trade package. Now, here are three players who could effectively fill the Avalanche’s hole at the second-line center position and could become available by the 2022-23 trade deadline for an affordable cost.
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Jonathan Toews may no longer be at the peak of his powers, but he’s shown he still has something left in the tank after missing the entire 2020-21 season due to chronic immune response syndrome. The 34-year-old center has posted 43 points in 79 games since the start of the 2021-22 season and ranks sixth in faceoff percentage among players to have taken at least 100 draws over that time. For a team struggling with faceoffs as of late (22nd in the league since the start of the 2020-21 season; 29th since 2021-22), trotting out such a reliable option could be a boon for their results in the dot.
Corey Sznajder’s tracking data can offer further insights into how Toews can impact play in ways that aren’t necessarily shown in the box score. In 2021-22, the Chicago Blackhawks captain ranked above-average relative to NHL forwards (and third on the Blackhawks) in center-lane assists per-60-minutes (completed passes towards the middle of the offensive zone), consistently putting the puck into high-danger areas. With more talented finishers around him, Toews could parlay those passes into tangible assists.
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Toews has still proven to be a capable forechecker (above average in recovered dump-ins) and has shown the ability to create in transition (above average in controlled zone entries ending in a scoring chance). The Avalanche primarily generate offence off of the rush and by pressuring opponents in their own zone, suggesting Toews could fit comfortably within their system.
Outside of his on-ice impact, Toews – often considered one of the NHL’s greatest leaders – could function as a mentor of sorts for Newhook, who is still transitioning full-time to the center position. At one time, the Blackhawks’ pivot challenged Sidney Crosby for the title of hockey’s top two-way player and with his war chest of playoff experience, could offer invaluable tutelage to the younger Newhook as he looks to become more integral to the Avalanche’s gameplan.
Throwing a wrench into any trade for Toews is the Blackhawks’ strong start to the season (sixth in the Western Conference by points percentage) and his no-move clause (NMC). His fate seems to have been sealed, but the Blackhawks could be tested if their improbable run continues for another month or two.
Still, the team was tipped as one of the frontrunners in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes prior to the season and they are riding hot hands (first in team shooting percentage) while accounting for under 43% of all shots and scoring chances at 5-on-5. That’s not a sustainable formula for success, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see them tumble down the standings at some point. Further, management has indicated they could trade Toews and Patrick Kane as they look to the future, and an unexpected playoff berth does little for their chances of winning a Stanley Cup in the near future, especially considering the quality of the loaded 2023 Draft class. The Blackhawks have misinterpreted their contention timeline before, but this decision should be a foregone conclusion.
Dylan Strome, Washington Capitals
The second trade candidate is Dylan Strome of the Washington Capitals, a 26-year-old center who signed a one-year deal with the team this past offseason. He is a restricted free agent (RFA) at the end of the year and is arbitration eligible. With the Capitals retaining team control and the long-term future of Nicklas Backstrom in doubt, they may be inclined to keep Strome in the fold as a capable top-six option.
Even so, the franchise’s contention window seems to be closing rapidly with few high-end prospects waiting in the wings. Of the Capitals’ key players, all of Alexander Ovechkin (37 years old), Backstrom (34), John Carlson (32), Darcy Kuemper (32), and Evgeny Kuznetsov (30) are on the wrong side of 30. The situation isn’t dire given that the aforementioned players are still performing, but the age-related decline is right around the corner if it hasn’t crept in already.
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As for Strome, he can function as an effective stopgap in his prime while Newhook transitions into becoming a full-time center. He’s tallied six points in nine games this season and has scored at a 52-point pace for his career. He isn’t the most fluid skater and his 5-on-5 possession numbers aren’t spectacular (sub-50% shot- and chance-share), but his shortcomings can be overcome. Pairing Strome with capable puck-carrying wingers such as Valeri Nichushkin or Artturi Lehkonen hides his biggest weakness and puts him in the best position to succeed.
The Capitals are currently tied for fourth in the Metropolitan Division (by points percentage) and 10th in the Eastern Conference. That’s not enough to trigger a fire sale just yet, but they are likely to sit on the threshold of the playoff race for the entire season. If legitimate contention is a pipedream, the organization should face reality and look towards the future in selling off expiring assets, like Strome. Still, Ovechkin only has a few years left on his contract, and failing to capitalize on his presence – even while in decline – would be a shame for one of the NHL’s greatest all-time goal-scorers.
Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks
The third and final center the Avalanche could target to shore up their group down the middle is Vancouver Canucks’ captain, 27-year-old Bo Horvat. The Canucks’ turbulent start to the season (two wins in nine games; 14th in the Western Conference by points percentage) has initiated discussions about where the team is headed. At the forefront of the conversation is Horvat’s future with the team, given that his contract is set to expire at the end of the season. If the organization chooses to kickstart a rebuild, keeping a player in the middle of their prime who could command a hefty contract extension is a suboptimal use of their assets.
For the Avalanche, Horvat’s appeal is clear. He’s able to provide some offensive pop – he averages an 82-game pace of 56 points – while fulfilling his defensive responsibilities. He ranks 106th among forwards in takeaways at 5-on-5 and has taken the second-most draws since 2020-21 while sporting a 55.4% faceoff win rate (fourth in the NHL). His strengths could patch over much of what ails the defending champions and at age 27, he fits neatly within the team’s competitive timeline.
The Avalanche boast an embarrassment of riches on the blue line and could start a trade package centered around 24-year-old Samuel Girard. Bowen Byram’s emergence on the backend could make the puck-moving maestro expendable, although the Avalanche should get some clarity on a Horvat extension before giving up a young, cost-controlled asset under team control for multiple seasons. Adding Girard immediately fortifies a weak Canucks’ blue line while adding a player who would still be at or near his prime when Vancouver figures to be truly competitive again.
If both teams’ fortunes continue on their current trajectories, they become even more complementary trading partners. A swap with Girard and Horvat as the main pieces simultaneously addresses a number of weaknesses while representing fair value for both sides. Keep an eye on the standings as a number of losses (for either team) could considerably accelerate trade talks.
The Avalanche Shouldn’t Panic…Yet
Even in an industry as cutthroat and reactionary as professional sports, rationally taking stock of the situation before making drastic changes is a useful maneuver for decision-makers. Through the first 10 games of the 2021-22 season, the Avalanche owned a record of 4-5-1, including back-to-back losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets who finished 21st overall. If I recall correctly, the season ended on a high note and that early slide was lost to the sands of time.
Still, warning trends have cropped up and the organization should make moves to address their subpar 5-on-5 play, porous penalty kill, and low faceoff win rate. The three centers listed could help on both fronts and shouldn’t empty the Avalanche’s coffers in the process. Around 90 percent of the 2022-23 season is yet to be played, but it’s never too early to draw up contingency plans in case of an emergency. The defending Stanley Cup champions should find their footing, but keep these names in mind as the season progresses – they could be donning an Avalanche sweater before the year is up.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.