Six months ago, the hope was that Alex Newhook would be the one to replace Nazem Kadri and fill that second line center role.
Fast forward to today, and things are a little different.
Mired in a 14 game goalless drought, Newhook has spent time recently centering the fourth line and playing minimal minutes. With injuries up front, he’s gotten a chance to jump back into the top six, but the goals haven’t quite come yet. The message from his coach is clear.
“I want him to keep shooting,” Jared Bednar said after Friday’s win over Arizona.
Against the Coyotes, Newhook attempted five shots at even strength. It was only the fourth time this season he’s attempted five or more shots in a game at even strength, and the first time in two months. He didn’t score, and didn’t even hit the net (perhaps a sign confidence is low), but if you’re getting opportunities, you’re doing something right.
“I don’t think shooting when you’re in a scoring area is ever a bad play,” Bednar said. “I’d rather him getting the chances and have a few blocked and miss the net and the goalie make saves. It’ll come for him. It’s when he’s not getting those chances that I start getting concerned.”
It’s been an up and down season for the Newfoundland native.
While Newhook didn’t seize the opportunity to run with the second line center spot to start the year (zero points in the first eight games), there’s also an argument to be made that he never got a fair shot at it. In the first 15 games of the season, he played more than 14:18 in a game only once, and was consistently in the 12-13 minute mark. A typical second line center gets more ice time than that. One look at the numbers would show that J.T. Compher was always the second line center, in terms of usage.
Newhook’s slow start to the year offensively certainly played a role in the shorter leash. Another part of it all is that ultimately, Bednar has preferred Newhook at the wing over center.
Until January, that is.
When the calendar year flipped to 2023, something clicked at center with Newhook. He looked more confident, was using his skating, and was steady defensively. And Bednar noticed. Since the new year, Newhook has mostly played in the middle, only moving to wing with the recent injuries. He can feel the difference, too.
“I think that, throughout my career, I’ve probably been more comfortable playing center,” Newhook told me. “Obviously, it’s an adjustment to this level. I think I’m starting to find a bit more of a groove in the middle and feel more comfortable. Finding better ways to get free and get more speed.”
It’s not easy adjusting to the center position in the NHL. It took Nathan MacKinnon a few years to figure it out. Sometimes, you need consistent time at the position to get comfortable and grow. On a team built to win, that’s not a luxury the Avalanche have. But Newhook has still pushed to find some of the success he had at the position when he played for Boston College.
“It’s definitely easier to find ways to get the puck in college,” Newhook said. “You can out-skate a lot more guys, just one-on-one kind of thing. But here, everyone can skate. Everyone’s obviously quick and physical, and better defensively. I think just finding ways to use my speed to jump into holes maybe a bit more, and just find ways to get the puck with speed and attack guys that way.”
While the young forward (easy to forget he’s only 22) is happy with his adjustment down the middle, he knows he can be better. And he’s honest about that.
“Obviously, I think, production-wise, I would like to be a little bit more than where I’m at right now,” Newhook said.
With 27 points in 71 games, his numbers have actually taken a step back this season. Not just in the raw numbers, but in his scoring rate as well. His points-per-60 last year was a fair bit better. That Avalanche team also scored a lot more goals, and was built much differently than this year’s squad.
But if you ask me, he looks much better defensively. And growing at the center position is a big step in the NHL. Now, it’s about putting it all together. There’s still time for that.
“I think my game’s grown a lot this year,” Newhook said. “Just trying to keep learning, and keep improving. Still a lot of ways to go, but I think, progression-wise, it’s definitely good.”