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How High Can Alex Newhook Fly with the Montreal Canadiens?

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Montreal Canadiens Alex Newhook Habs

So much of this season watching the Montreal Canadiens has been focusing on the top trio of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Juraj Slafkovsky, or the veterans that are likely to be traded for futures as the Habs continue to rebuild.

Any leftover attention has been soaked up by the young defence core, or the emergence of Joshua Roy, and because of that, the spotlight hasn’t been on Alex Newhook as much as it should be.

Coming into Tuesday’s matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers, Newhook is sitting at 13 goals and 17 assists for 30 points in 50 games played. That’s obviously not blowing the doors off with production, but it’s three points away from his career high in points in 21 fewer games. That pace over 82 games would be 49 points, including 21 goals.

Considering all that’s been asked of Alex Newhook this season in terms of working in a new system with new linemates, and often at centre due to injuries to Kirby Dach and Christian Dvorak, along with trading Sean Monahan. There’s been more stability since he returned from injury, but it hasn’t been an easy road for Newhook so far. Still, he’s having the best season of his career.

Proving doubters wrong

When Kent Hughes traded for Alex Newhook right before the draft, I was confused. He didn’t seem to fit the needs of the team, and the price seemed pretty high. However, the 23-year-old spitfire from St. John’s, Newfoundland has taken a tough situation and made the most of it.

In his first season with the Montreal Canadiens, Newhook was put on a line with Dach and Slafkovsky that showed a lot of promise, only to have their hopes dashed four periods into the season when Dach sustained a freak knee injury that took him out for the year. Shifting to centre and tasked with holding the defensive bag for Slafkovsky and Josh Anderson did not work.

Marty St. Louis gave that line plenty of time to figure it out, but it didn’t mesh.

The line of Alex Newhook, Josh Anderson, and Juraj Slafkovsky produced worse results together than all three did apart.

Alex Newhook and  Juraj Slafkovsky have rehabilitated their seasons after this line was broken up.

On paper, I understand why St. Louis wanted to put that line together. Newhook and Anderson are both very fast, Slafkovsky and Anderson are big and can create a lot of forecheck pressure for Newhook to pounce on.

The problem was their playing styles didn’t fit together, and all three players ended up being worse together than they were apart.

At a glance, Newhook just treading water at 5-vs-5 isn’t that impressive, but we have to add some context here. As the straw that stirs the drink on the second line, Newhook does not have the advantage of playing with any of Suzuki, Caufield, or Slafkovsky. He’s also not playing top checkers every game, but as much as we should be rightfully crediting Joel Armia for his resurgent play this season, trying to run a second line with Armia as your best option at wing is not ideal in the NHL.

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You Want Context? I’ll Give You Context!

At 5-vs-5, Newhook clearly looks most comfortable on the wing. Playing centre, the defensive game can get away from him at times, which makes Armia a very good partner for him overall because of Armia’s excellent defensive play this season. Newhook’s playmaking and speed also open up space for Armia, which has been a big factor in Armia tying his career-high mark for goals in a season with 16.

With Joshua Roy in the lineup, they formed a competitive line that stayed even against opponents in goals while slightly outplaying them in expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick. Keep in mind, that’s still with Newhook playing outside his natural position. Add in a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss 17 games, and it’s been a lot to battle through for the young Newfoundlander.

Those underlying numbers where Newhook is treading water are even more impressive when you realize that they’re a significant improvement of what he brought to the table in a smaller role on the Colorado Avalanche. Bigger minutes are an opportunity, but they also mean a tougher skate uphill as expectations and quality of opponents rise.

Dom Luszczyszyn's research at The Athletic reveals truer impacts of teammates and competition. Newhook sits dead centre in situational impact on his performance.

Alex Newhook sits dead centre in Dom Luszczyszyn’s breakdown on how teammates and opponents impact a player’s performance, meaning we can examine Newhook’s results against average expectations.

Dom Luszczyszyn’s research for The Athletic illustrates for us that Newhook isn’t thrown to the wolves in terms of his usage, nor is he hidden from danger. With an average level of difficulty to deal with on a below-average team, playing centre when he’s ideally a winger, with below-average linemates for the most part, I would argue his results are pretty good.

Projecting the future

Putting all this information together, what does it actually mean for Newhook as a future piece of the Montreal Canadiens? First and foremost, I think his production and overall play have put a lot of my reservations about the trade to bed. Newhook is clearly a talented NHL player who can contribute consistently. With that said, when I broke down what the Montreal Canadiens’ core looks like going forward, I had Newhook as a future fixture of the third line.

That isn’t an insult to Newhook, so much as a commentary on how I think this team is going to be built, which is to have a third line that attempts to score like a second line.

Even playing at centre and in a role that doesn’t look like a long-term fit, Newhook actually leads all Canadiens players aside from Roy in points per 60 minutes at 5-vs-5 with 2.05.

A player like Newhook who can score and make plays on a third line that can insulate him a little defensively seems like a recipe for success.