18 Avalanche observations: Alex Newhook at wing, Ben Meyers’ improvement, more


DENVER — Alex Newhook’s season has leveled out, and that’s good news for the Avalanche.

The 21-year-old, who went into the season with hopes of emerging as the team’s second-line center, started the year with zero points and a minus-four rating through eight games. In the 21 contests since, he has seven goals and 12 points — a far more respectable pace. His Game Score Value Added is up to 0.3, and Dom Luszczyszyn’s model projects him to finish with 0.8.

“Definitely (was) frustrating at the start of the year,” he said. “Not what I hoped for or was expecting, but (I) just tried to build off it. It’s not going to be smooth all the time. … Things have been coming around lately.”

His increase in production has coincided with coach Jared Bednar shifting him from center to wing, and the Colorado lineup getting healthier should only help more. With Evan Rodrigues centering and Valeri Nichushkin at right wing, Newhook played left wing on the second line Saturday against Nashville. He set up Nichushkin with a quality scoring chance in the first period and then, late in the second, he activated after Nichushkin broke up a Nashville pass and got the puck to Rodrigues. Trailing his center, Newhook called for the puck and, when he received it, ripped it past Juuse Saros from the slot.

“I thought he was really good tonight,” Bednar said after the game. “We’ve been talking with him about some stuff. I think he’s a little frustrated that he hasn’t been scoring. Scorers want to score and there are some things that he can do to help his point production, but he’s going to do them consistently. Tonight I thought he was really good in those areas.”

Bednar believes Newhook’s skating is better on the wing. He explodes up the wall and brings speed from the outside, the coach said. That doesn’t mean he can’t develop into an effective center as he ages, he’s still barely 100 games into his NHL career, after all.

“If he wants to play center, he’s going to have to get better at pushing the puck through the middle of the ice,” Bednar said. “It’s not that he can’t arrive low and defend and do all those things. I think he’s been pretty good at that, responsible guy. But to me, when I look at the games he’s playing on the wing, he’s more dangerous.”

So, barring further Avalanche injuries, Newhook seems likely to remain at wing for the rest of the year. He leads off our weekly observations, and I have 18 in honor of his jersey number.

1. Rodrigues, Artturi Lehkonen and Nichushkin are now back from injury. Shane Bowers is, too, and made his return to the Colorado Eagles lineup on Friday, tallying three shots and a plus-one rating. Since he’s now healthy enough to play and was reassigned to the AHL, he’s no longer on the Avalanche’s salary cap.

Darren Helm and Kurtis MacDermid have been skating with the team. MacDermid appears to be the closest of the two to a return, he’s been wearing a full-contact jersey. Helm is still in a red non-contact jersey. Bednar said on his Altitude radio appearance that the forward’s recovery has been going slower than the team would like, but he added that’s not because of lack of effort on Helm’s part.

2. Ben Meyers, the top college free agent this past spring, has looked much more comfortable in NHL games since getting recalled ahead of the Dec. 7 game against the Bruins. The 24-year-old doesn’t have a point in the six games since his call up, but he easily could have against the Predators. He passed to an open Logan O’Connor in front of the net, but Saros made the save. His skating in particular has popped over the past few games, and he’s feeling more confident.

“Things happen faster here than they do in any other league,” he said. “It’s just kind of slowing down for me.”

The center played between Andrew Cogliano and O’Connor on Saturday, and the Avalanche had 53 percent of the expected goals share when that line was on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. Cogliano and O’Connor have played with Compher most of the season, but Compher is up with Mikko Rantanen.

“I didn’t feel like they missed a beat tonight with Meyers playing in there,” Bednar said. “He was really responsible defensively. He’s not getting beat for any scoring chances against.”

3. Cogliano and O’Connor feel like perfect linemates for a player trying to break into the league. Both are grinders with high motors, and Bednar said Cogliano is excellent at communicating with teammates.

“He’ll talk him through all the plays, decisions,” the coach said. “That line is good because they put so much importance and emphasis on the structure of the game.”

4. J.T. Compher has been money from the faceoff circle lately. He’s won 62 percent of his draws on the current homestand. He’s up to 49.5 percent on the season, best on the team among those who have taken more than 100 draws. That’s important for Colorado, which is 29th in the league with a 45.6 team faceoff win percentage.

“He’s an all-around player,” Rantanen said. “We need a guy like him to win important draws.”

It’s part of the reason Bednar felt comfortable moving Compher up to the top line.

“He’s a real good responsible checking center who helps in a bunch of different ways,” Bednar said. “I trust him a lot, and he’s been chipping in a little bit offensively. He’s been making plays, he’s playing with a ton of confidence.”

5. Alexandar Georgiev has been looking to return to his early-season form, and the Nashville win was a step in the right direction. He stopped 25 of 26 shots faced, including a dangerous Filip Forsberg chance while the Avalanche were clinging to a one-goal lead with less than 40 seconds left in regulation. The crowd appreciated his efforts, chanting, “Geor-gie! Geor-gie!”

“Really awesome, I appreciate the love,” he said afterwards. “I have to keep going. Keep playing that way, keep grinding out those big wins.”

6. Gary Bettman indicated at the Board of Governors meetings that the salary cap will go up by around $1 million. There seemed to be hope earlier in the season that it would go up more, and the fact that it looks like it’ll only be a marginal increase will limit what the Avalanche can do next summer.

7. The Flyers were playing “All the Small Things” in the dressing room before the game. Strangely, the DJ didn’t play it during the game, even though the Avalanche were winning in the third period.

8. Artturi Lehkonen found himself tangled up with Rasmus Ristolainen during a first-period power play against the Flyers. The kerfuffle ended with Lehkonen’s helmet coming off, so he had to stop and put it back on, per league rules. That messed up a potential power-play zone entry, and Philadelphia killed the penalty.

Lehkonen and Ristolainen are both from Turku, Finland, and train in the same circles during offseasons. There’s plenty of contact when they play against each other, and Lehkonen said he was trying to be physical with the Flyers’ defenseman throughout the game. Is that always the case when he plays against a friend?

“Oh yeah,” he said with a smile.

9. It’s striking how little Bednar plays Jacob MacDonald as a forward compared to when he’s using him as a defenseman. During a 14-game stretch when MacDonald was playing only defenseman, he averaged 12:51 of ice time a game. In his past three games, all at forward, he’s averaged under five minutes, and Bednar scratched him the past two games.

10. Bednar mentioned that Nichushkin is knocking off some post-injury rust, but he still jumps out every game with winning plays. He backchecked hard in the first period against the Flyers and broke up a chance for Owen Tippett on what looked like a three-on-one rush.

Devon Toews is another player who frequently makes unheralded difference-making plays. He had one against Nashville, getting back on defense to break up a possible Predators breakaway.

11. Lehkonen’s short-handed goal against the Flyers resembled the shorthanded goal Colorado gave up to St. Louis the previous Sunday. Against the Blues, Lehkonen lost the puck along the boards after seeming to get tangled with the official. Then, as Cale Makar chipped the puck backwards, Compher lost an edge, allowing Brandon Saad to grab the puck and score.

Lehkonen’s goal also came after a weird bounce along the boards allowed him to pick the puck up in the slot. He took advantage of the chance and scored.

“Very similar goals,” Bednar said with a laugh.

Another note on Lehkonen: There are more dangerous scorers on the team than him, but his puck retrieval on the power play makes him incredibly valuable. Colorado lost a faceoff on its third power play against Nashville, but Colorado retained possession solely because Lehkonen chased down the puck behind the net. It’d be wise to keep him on the top unit even when the team is fully healthy.

12. Lukas Sedlak, who started the season with the Avalanche but went to the Flyers on waivers, played 14 minutes against Colorado. It turned out to be one of his last NHL games of the year. He’s going back to Chechia, likely to play for Pardubice.

Sedlak told Philadelphia reporters the decision had nothing to do with the Flyers, according to Giana Han, who covers the Flyers for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The 29-year-old wanted to be closer to family and have fun with the hockey years he has left. No one thing happened — he appreciated how good his teammates were to him — but a culmination of things made him feel he needed to go home.

Sedlak was great to deal with during Avalanche training camp, and I’m wishing him well.

13. Rodrigues returned to the lineup against the Sabres, his former team. He had been out since Nov. 23 after clipping skates with J.T. Miller in a home game against Vancouver.

“At the exact moment (of the clip), I was pretty scared,” he said. “It was a weird feeling. … Once I got into the training room I knew right away. I was relieved.”

14. Rodrigues also tried an interesting faceoff play against Buffalo, intentionally losing the draw and darting through the circle to try to grab the puck. It didn’t work that time, but Rodrigues said he’s used the tactic from time to time.

15. Sabres forward Tyson Jost played a regular season game in Denver for the first time since Colorado traded him to Minnesota in March. He grabbed dinner at Uchi with multiple teammates, including Compher, one of his close friends.

The 24-year-old Jost, who played more than 300 games with the Avalanche, has carved out a role in Buffalo after the Wild put him on waivers. He’s averaging 13:42 a night with the Sabres and has five points in 13 games with the club.

“It’s been awesome,” he said. “We’re an up-and-coming team and we’re young. It kind of has that feel of when I was first here in Colorado. … It’s fun coming to the locker room every day.”

16. Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin came up at dinner with Jost and Compher.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good he is,” Jost said. “He’s incredible. So smooth with the puck and his skill is outstanding.”

17. Bednar did not like Colorado’s start against Buffalo. Rantanen got burned when Tage Thompson cut past him, received a pass and finished a partial breakaway. The Avalanche then allowed a power-play goal midway through the period. The Avalanche vastly improved their start against Nashville two nights later.

18. Hockey Reference posted data about the most searched players on their site by state. There were a few current and former Avalanche players that made the graphic. Patrick Roy took the Montana crown, and Makar is popular in Mississippi. Georgiev was the most-searched player in Colorado, which makes sense. Lots of fans were presumably interested in his stats after Colorado acquired him from the Rangers.

In case you missed it…

13 Avalanche observations: Injury luck shifting, Mikko Rantanen’s hat trick, and more

NHL Future Power Rankings: Projecting the 2025-26 standings (Corey Pronman and The Athletic NHL staff)

Avalanche’s Brad Hunt brings good vibes, a blistering shot and strong leadership

Sabres’ Tyson Jost continues his instant impact in return to Colorado (Matthew Fairburn)

J.T. Compher is producing — What does it mean for his Avalanche future?

The NHL’s 2022-23 trade market and trying to figure out the buyers and sellers (Eric Duhatschek)

NHL future power rankings, take 2: Reacting to each team’s projected standing for 2025-26 (The Athletic NHL Staff)

(Photo: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)


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