NEWARK, N.J. — On his first shift of a game his Montreal Canadiens went on to win 5-2, Josh Anderson picked up a head of steam, barreled down the gut, broke free for a pass, received the puck and notched a Grade-A scoring chance from the right wing.
He didn’t score, just like he didn’t finish off a similar opportunity on his last shift of the first period, but Anderson set the pace and showed he was going to be a threat all night. He was hard to contain — as any six-foot-three, 218-pound winger who moves like a cheetah and hunts like a lion would be — as he generated five of Montreal’s 18 shots, seven attempts, one punishing hit, and a whole lot of mayhem every time he jumped over the boards for one of his 23 shifts in the game.
“He flies,” said Rem Pitlick, who scored Montreal’s fourth goal “He’s a great player, he’s intimidating, and that’s exactly what he was in this game.”
As the clock wound down, right before Mike Matheson iced it with a shot the length of the ice into an empty net, one Devils reporter quipped in the media room, “Maybe the Canadiens would be nice enough to leave Anderson in New Jersey.”
Watching how the Devils played this one — fast, skilled, and much more dangerous in transition than they were in generating second-chance opportunities and playing with some bite in front of Canadiens goaltender Samuel Montembeault — you could appreciate the thought.
Anderson would fit exceptionally well on this New Jersey team, a player who could play with their speed and skill featured up front while providing some of the jam you could argue they’re missing. He’s the type of player the Devils appear to be looking to add before the March 3 trade deadline.
That’s why there’s been more than just a little buzz about how Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald is working fervently to try to acquire San Jose Sharks power forward Timo Meier.
The six-foot-one, 221-pound winger, who has nearly double the amount of goals Anderson’s scored this season (31 to 16), is attracting interest from multiple teams outside of New Jersey, too.
He’s also 26 years old, on an expiring contract that carries a $6-million cap hit and brings him to within one year of becoming an unrestricted free agent. He’s not only going to cost an enormous haul to acquire but also a ton of money to retain beyond this season. Never mind that the rest of his $10-million salary needs to get paid this season.
Anderson, who carries a $5.5-million cap hit over each of the four seasons to follow this one — and a salary that will shrink considerably over the final two years of his deal — could be an excellent consolation.
And on Tuesday, the 28-year-old looked like a main prize, even without scoring.
Anderson’s been consistently at that level for his last 13 games, producing five goals and eight points over that time, and he’s consistently been pulling his Canadiens teammates into the fire.
Coach Martin St. Louis has seen it, and also appreciates how Anderson has been rounding out his game since the beginning of the season.
“He’s a big part of our group,” St. Louis said. “Obviously, his size, his strength, his speed (stands out). But he doesn’t just find ice on the ice because of his speed, I feel he thinks the game better now and he’s getting rewarded with some chances. Some nights, those go in, and we’ve seen in the past the floodgates can open for him. For him, he just needs to keep doing what he’s doing, because he’s definitely more efficient on the ice than I’ve ever seen.”
If scouts are seeing the same, Anderson could represent Montreal’s best trade asset as the deadline draws closer.
Not that the Canadiens are actively trying to move him. They aren’t going to unless they get the type of deal they can’t turn away from.
Knowing that, it’s hard to identify teams that can actually make that type of deal — absorbing Anderson’s contract while offloading the assets it would take to acquire him.
But it’s easy to see the Devils as a team that might be able to do it, and one that might want to do it.
They have picks to move. They have a prospect in Alexander Holtz, who was chosen seventh overall in 2020 and who can’t find a chair despite having an NHL profile because his skillset is somewhat redundant with what the team already has in its top six.
The Devils will have a little over $2 million in cap space and opportunity to create more by moving players off the fringes of their roster. And they also appear to have a need for a guy who can play the way Johnathan Kovacevic described Anderson after this one.
“His top speed is up there in the league, and he’s a rare combination of size, speed, physicality. It’s rare to have someone six-foot-three, who can fly like that and also knock you on your ass,” Kovacevic, who scored Montreal’s second goal, said. “It’s pretty special. It works often when he’s going wide and dropping his shoulder on you. He makes it pretty hard to stop him from getting to the net.
“And I think when you have a veteran guy like that who’s playing that hard, it just teaches us the way. It shows us the mindset and attitude you have to bring, and he’s definitely a leader like that.”
The Canadiens came into Tuesday’s game wanting to reassert themselves after two tough losses to the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs. Anderson talked about the importance of it —even for this Canadiens group, which is all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff race with 25 games to go — and took it upon himself to lead the charge.
“That’s how I go into every game mentally, try to stay focused and be that complete player and be ready every night,” Anderson said. “There’s different aspects of my game, obviously, and some nights where you don’t have it. But you gotta try to focus on all the little things to get by and help your team win hockey games.”
He’s doing it with regularity right now, even with all the trade talk swirling around and creating a potential distraction.
“Sometimes, it’s in the back of your head and it’s hard to escape it,” Anderson said. “But at the end of the day, it is what it is. It’s not in your hands, so you just gotta go out there and do your best and hopefully stay a Montreal Canadien.”
There’s nothing official to suggest he could be a New Jersey Devil in the near future, but it didn’t seem like a farfetched thought on Tuesday.