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Avalanche Journal: Are middle-six centers Ryan Johansen, Ross Colton an upgrade from JT Compher, Alex Newhook?

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Avalanche fans can spend the 2023-24 season paying attention to an extended game of 2-on-2 hockey if they want to risk torturing themselves.

Ryan Johansen and Ross Colton vs. J.T. Compher and Alex Newhook. Note: The four contestants will be playing separately, in three different cities, across seven months.

The Avalanche’s 2022-23 second-line center, Compher, moved on in unrestricted free agency this offseason. The team traded away the rights to its third-line center, Newhook, who negotiated his new contract with Montreal. Rather than run it back with last year’s fulcrum in the middle of the lineup and in the middle of the ice, the Avs went in a new direction.

They emerged with Johansen (likely 2C) and Colton (3C) via trades.

If the decline from Stanley Cup champs to first-round losers stemmed from the disappearance of forward depth behind Nathan MacKinnon, then Colorado’s bounce-back hopes reasonably hinge on whether Johansen and Colton turn out to be upgrades.

Especially considering the numbers, which show Compher and Newhook weren’t all that impossible to bring back.

Avalanche incoming vs. outgoing center contracts

Johansen: two years remaining, $4 million cap hit ($4 million retained by Predators in trade)

Colton: four years, $4 million cap hit

New 2C + 3C total: $8 million cap hit, six years combined term

Compher with Red Wings: five years, $5.1 million cap hit

Newhook with Canadiens: four years, $2.9 million cap hit

Former 2C + 3C total: $8 million cap hit, nine years combined term

It’s notable that Johansen and Colton are eating exactly the same amount of cap space as Compher and Newhook will be. Translation: There was a path for Colorado to keep both players. Compher didn’t rule out a reunion until after the Colton trade, which supplied Colorado with its second new center in a five-day span, a league source told The Post. Only at that point, with acquisitions of both Johansen and Colton, was Compher’s price range unaffordable.

There is one key difference contractually. The Avs managed to land a shorter-term commitment to Johansen than Compher would have required. If it turns out that Johansen’s prime has passed, the front office won’t be as stuck as it would be if Compher’s 2022-23 had proven to be a statistical anomaly.

Regardless, the equal cap hits accentuate the nature of Colorado’s roll of the dice.

What the numbers say

Start with 2022-23. Detroit’s paycheck for Compher was largely based on his career year, compounding on his already-established versatility with new offensive heights. At 52 points, he raced past his previous single-season pinnacle of 33.

If there’s any reason for skepticism about his ability to sustain a 50-per-season output, it’s because he often shared the ice with Hart Trophy candidate Mikko Rantanen last season. In Detroit, Compher likely won’t have a 50-goal linemate.

Still, his defensive value is undeniable and maybe still underappreciated. In recent years, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn has developed and tweaked a metric called Game Score Value Added, designed to measure a player’s value in wins similarly to WAR in baseball. According to last season’s GSVA dataset, Compher’s defensive rating measured near the top of the league at 14.0. He finished 13th in Selke Trophy voting for best defensive forward. Among the 12 players who finished higher, only three had a better defensive rating in Luszczyszyn’s model.

Based on 2022-23 alone, this model indicates Compher and Newhook both hold a defensive edge over Johansen and Colton. Newhook’s defensive component was surprisingly a 7.5. But according to the overall GSVA stat (which tends to favor offensive skillset), Johansen comes in at 0.4 last season to Newhook’s 0.2 and Colton’s 0.2 — despite Johansen missing 27 games due to injury and scoring fewer goals than Newhook and Colton. Compher was above the pack at 1.8 GSVA. Newhook had the lowest offensive rating at -5.4.

One season isn’t the most robust way to judge, though. While Johansen played in 55 games, the other three contenders played in at least 81. The last two years form the most reasonable, wider time range to compare all four centers, because Newhook and Colton didn’t have established NHL roles before 2021-22.

Individual offensive stats are simple but important, considering how Colorado’s season ended. For all Compher’s strengths, he only generated two points in a seven-game playoff series.

In the last two years, Compher and Newhook combined for 148 points (62 goals) in 305 games. Johansen plus Colton equaled 162 points (76 goals) in 294 total games.

Compher/Newhook 2021-23: 0.49 PPG, 0.2 GPG

Johansen/Colton 2021-23: 0.55 PPG, 0.26 GPG

Even with a year of Compher alongside Rantanen, the scoring edge belongs to the newcomers. However, career trajectory favors Compher over Johansen, whose scoring dropped last season even when he was healthy.

Compher and Newhook combined to get 57.1% of their shot attempts on goal the last two years, and their shooting percentage on those shots was 12.8%. Johansen and Colton combined for an almost identical 864 shot attempts, but they were more efficient at both getting their attempts to the net (59.7%) and actually scoring (14.7% combined shooting).

In terms of sheer usage, it’s advantage Compher and Newhook. Compher is one of 42 forwards in the league who has played at least 150 games and averaged 18:30 in ice time over the last two years. He and Newhook combined to be on the ice 32:22 per game vs. a sum of 28:48 for Johansen and Colton. Johansen has comfortably played the most power play minutes despite the fewest games; Compher is the only high-frequency penalty killer of the four.

In the faceoff circle — an overvalued stat but nonetheless important for Colorado’s centers behind the inconsistent MacKinnon — Johansen and Colton are ahead in efficiency but behind in volume.

Compher/Newhook faceoff success, 2021-23: 46.5%, 3,217 attempts

Johansen/Colton faceoff success, 2021-23: 54.7%, 2,931 attempts

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