Why Avalanche is taking its time with Alex Newhook, other young prospects – The Denver Post

Joe Sakic is borrowing a playbook from a former rival.

The development plan for Avalanche top prospect Alex Newhook and other young players now in Colorado’s system stems from what Sakic, the Avs’ general manager and 2012 first-ballot Hall of Famer, witnessed what the Detroit Red Wings did when the clubs were heated rivals two decades ago.

Sakic saw first-hand how the Red Wings built a dynasty and won the Stanley Cup three times from 1997 to 2002. They also won in 2008 — Sakic’s second-to-last year as the Avalanche’s 13-year captain.

“If you look at the development model from Detroit from years past, they had all their young guys playing in the minors for two, three, even four years until they needed waivers and they got them up and it was a winning model for them,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “You want to try to over-season your guys in the American Hockey League and get them the minutes they need to develop into what we see those guys being long-term.

“With a guy like Newhook, if he’s going to come up here and play limited minutes, it’s better off for him to be an impact player there (with the Eagles) and see how he develops against men now.”

Detroit in the late 1990s added key veterans via trades and free agency, but its model was also built on patience with draft picks.

Sakic is doing the same now with additions such as Sam Girard, Joonas Donskoi and Devon Toews, among others, building the depth necessary to allow draft picks such as Newhook the time needed to develop at a preferred pace.

“We’re trying to put together as deep as a team as possible to make a run,” Sakic said at the start of this season. “You have to have depth to win. And we feel like we addressed that.”

That depth now goes all the way up to Loveland.

Newhook, 20, was the Avs’ second first-round draft choice in 2019, going 16th overall. The Canadian forward signed with the Avs on March 31 after his sophomore year at Boston College. Following a lengthy wait for his immigration papers, Newhook made his professional debut with the Colorado Eagles of the American Hockey League on Tuesday.

He will marinate in the minors — an opportunity 2016 first-round draft pick Tyson Jost didn’t get after signing with the Avs in 2017 following his freshman season at North Dakota.

Jost’s maturation as a player likely suffered. But the Avs were the NHL’s worst team at the time and Jost was its top prospect. Just four years later, the Avs sit atop the league standings, the roster is deep and Sakic wants to take his time with Newhook and his other young prospects.

“The depth that Joe has established here in our organization, it’s difficult to come in and make our hockey team,” Bednar said. “There are guys doing specific roles for our hockey team and their 200-foot game is strong and we have a role for every line.”

Sakic should again be a candidate to win the Jim Gregory Award as NHL executive of year. Through the draft, trades and free agency, he and his staff have built sustainable winning rosters in Denver and Loveland.

From the draft, developing sure-fire NHL players is now based on patience. If your name isn’t Cale Makar or Bo Byram, both No. 4 overall draft picks from 2017 and 2019, respectively, you’re going to spend a fair amount of time in the minors before making a big-league debut.

Newhook, the 2019 Tim Taylor Award winner as NCAA freshman of the year, is on that path. As are forward Sampo Ranta, 20 (third-rounder in 2018), and defenseman Nate Clurman, 22 (sixth rounder in 2016) — both of whom also recently signed with the Avs after their junior seasons at Minnesota and Notre Dame, respectively. Those two players joined Newhook and former first-round draft picks Martin Kaut and Shane Bowers, both 21, and third-rounder Jean-Luc Foudy, 18, with the Eagles.

Their teammates are mostly in their mid-to-late 20s — the preferred call-ups to the Avalanche.

Avalanche defensemen Makar, 22, and Byram, 19, are the exception, not the rule.

“It’s not impossible to jump into the league and make an impact. It’s different on every team and depends on what position the player plays and what you’re lacking on your NHL roster,” Bednar said. “In an ideal world, you’re looking for those guys to go into a similar role that they would play here and you’re looking for them to have success at the American League level for a significant amount of time.”

As it stands, there aren’t any available spots for Newhook with the big club this season, so his task is to work toward an NHL debut next season.

He could potentially replace Saad, a pending free agent, after the Avs dole out new contracts for Makar and team captain Gabe Landeskog, among others. Saad has a $5 million cap hit. Newhook’s cap hit on his entry-level contract will only be $908,333.

“I’m excited to get with the Eagles, first off, and start playing more games and learning from the coaching staff there,” Newhook said. “But yeah, obviously, the end goal is to be with the big club and something I’ll continue to work towards every day.”

Jost, 23, has a different role than what was forecasted with he turned pro at age 19. Billed as a top-six scoring forward in the 2016 draft, he has become a bottom-six “energy” guy and primary penalty killer.

While he says he doesn’t regret signing with the Avs as a teenager, there’s a chance he missed out on crucial developmental steps by forgoing college and/or a lengthy AHL stint.

“I don’t really look back on that and go over the past and wish things were different or whatever,” Jost said. “That’s not really my personality. I’m just looking forward…focused on this season, getting better each and every day.”

The Avs haven’t given up on Jost, and have lauded his ability to play a role, even if it’s different from what was originally planned. Still, their handling of Newhook indicates a more deliberate approach.

Makar is thankful he played two years at UMass before joining the Avs during the 2019 playoffs. Makar, Newhook and Byram each played for Canada’s prestigious World Junior team. Newhook and Byram were teammates in the 2021 tournament, winning the silver medal. Typically, Canadian players on those teams are destined for the NHL. Newhook, however, will probably take a longer path.

“I’m not the coach and I’m not management and stuff like that, but I watched him quite a bit in college and obviously (his B.C. teams) played UMass quite a bit,” Makar said of Newhook. “He seems like a very exceptional player. I’m excited to see what he can do for us and obviously the Eagles as well. It’s a testament to our depth. It’s just another key piece that we might need down the long run.”

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