Canadiens notebook: Anderson looks ready to live up to high expectations

Eric Engels looked at how the Montreal Canadiens used their first scrimmage of training camp to start building chemistry.

BROSSARD, Que. — Leave it to Claude Julien to offer us the perfect disclaimer for this notebook about the first game action we witnessed for the Montreal Canadiens this year.

“You don’t want to over-analyze it, because the reason you’re doing that is you want to give your guys a chance to get into game-like situations where they’re under pressure, where they gotta make quick decisions and all that stuff,” the coach started. “What happens [Thursday], it’s not about critiquing every mistake that’s made, because that’s what these scrimmages are for is that you’re trying to get your guys to play the right way, and the only way to do that is to work your way through it.

“There’s going to be mistakes, and guys learn from those things and they get used to the pressure, and the next time we scrimmage you hope that it’s even smoother. There’s a part of that that you just gotta let them scrimmage.”

So if you’re watching the highlights from Thursday’s intra-squad game and cursing Joel Edmundson for a failed zone exit, take a breath.
Still, there was some stuff we saw that stood out to us as worthy of some analysis.

Josh Anderson looks like Josh Anderson

It was anything but a given that Josh Anderson would sprint out of the gate.

He was limited to 26 games last season due to a shoulder injury — he played most of them injured and looked nothing like the player who put up 27 goals the year prior — and he last appeared in a game in December of 2019.

But after saying Wednesday he’s not even thinking about his shoulder anymore and that he feels 100 per cent healthy, Anderson played at 100 per cent on Thursday and looked very much like his old self.

Boy, it is something to watch him skate down the wing in full flight.

Anderson is six-foot-three and 226 pounds, and he moves like a guy half his size.

Not that anyone should be surprised by that. Speed is the main feature of Anderson’s game.

That, combined with his physicality and scoring touch, is what makes him one of the more unique forwards in the NHL.

And it’s obvious Anderson’s eager to show he’s going to be that player in Montreal. As Tyler Toffoli said on Wednesday, “Everybody watching practice and the highlights and whatever that’s out there, they can tell he has a jump in his step.”

You could definitely see it in this first game.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi looking confident and aggressive

Much like he did in the in the playoffs several months ago, Jesperi Kotkaniemishowed very well in this game.

The chemistry between him and Joel Armia remains intact, but it’s also certainly building between him and Tyler Toffoli, as the two combined for a goal.

It was Kotkaniemi who scored it, following up Toffoli’s net drive and pushing a rebound past Carey Price.

Toffoli also had one on the power play, a nice shot Jonathan Drouin set up for him.

Anyways… back to Kotkaniemi. The six-foot-two, 201-pound Finn was hard on the forecheck, throwing several checks and getting into the battles on the wall and in the corners.

You get the sense Kotkaniemi realized during his bubble experience that engaging physically is going to be essential to give himself the space he needs to have his skills shine through.

Julien agrees.

“It definitely helps him, especially with his size,” said Julien about Kotkaniemi. “He’s a big player who’s pretty strong, and I look at the goal he scored in front of the net today on a second effort and that physical play was something that allowed him to have success in the playoffs. So I think he’s continuing to build on that element. He’s very capable of being physical.”

Kotkaniemi’s also very capable of shooting the puck, which is something his teammates and the coaching staff would like to see him do more often, as Gallagher was alluding to earlier this week.

Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen had the line of the day when we asked him if any of the Canadiens shooters have surprised him so far at camp.

“Kotkaniemi,” Allen said. “I can’t pronounce his name yet, but his shot is next level. That kid’s got an absolute missile of a wrister.”

Jake Evans in the 4 slot

With the way the Canadiens arranged their lineups for the scrimmage, their fourth line of Paul Byron-Jake Evans -Arturri Lehkonen joined Victor Mete, Price and the taxi squad/AHL bound players on Team White.

What was compelling was seeing the Evans line up against Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Gallagher, if only because Evans really did well in the matchup.

The progress has been steady for him since being drafted 207th overall in 2014 — from his years at Notre Dame to his two seasons with the AHL’s Laval Rocket to his limited action with Montreal last year. His speed was a factor in helping the Canadiens in the playoffs, and he’s looked even faster at camp this year.

If Evans started with an edge in the competition for a job as fourth-line centre, he’s maintaining it.

Evans got the better of Danault in the faceoff circle more than a couple of times in this scrimmage. That’s where he can play a big role on this team this season, being one of only two right-handed centremen among the 12 forwards expected to be in the starting lineup.

Evans was over 51 per cent in the dot in 13 regular-season games with the Canadiens last season, but he was just under 45 per cent in his six games in the bubble. Julien said Wednesday he wants to rely on him to take some draws in the defensive zone and give Danault a break wherever he can, so it’ll be vital for Evans to be good in that department.

Paul Byron serving notice

We don’t blame you for thinking it.

As you watched the Canadiens add Michael Frolik and Corey Perry to a team loaded on the wing and up against the NHL’s salary cap, we know it made you wonder about what they were going to do with Byron, and we totally understand why it did.

Byron’s a player with three years left on a contract that counts for $3.4 million annually against the cap, a two-time 20-goal scorer coming off a down season that was certainly impacted by a slump out of the gate and a three-month recovery from a knee injury, and it’s only natural to be thinking about him getting paid that much to take a spot on the fourth line.

As you crunch the numbers and try to figure out how the Canadiens will comply with the cap and avoid potentially losing players like Frolik or Perry or Mete to waivers, it’s an easy conclusion to jump to that moving Byron could provide the flexibility the Canadiens need.

But it’s just as easy to forget about the value Byron brings to the Canadiens, and we’d caution against the idea that GM Marc Bergevin is just looking to offload him for cap space.

Byron’s an assistant captain, a heart-and-soul player, and he’s one of the most versatile members of the roster.

Knowing that, we asked Julien on Wednesday if he intends to use Byron as he always has.

We weren’t exactly surprised by his answer.

“I don’t see any reason why his role should be any different,” Julien started. “If he was able to be a Swiss Army Knife player before, there’s no reason that he can’t do that still. His game hasn’t changed, his skating is still the same. And again, injuries sometimes slow you down in a season, but he’s pretty healthy right now. He seems to be going pretty well. Watching him skate, I see no issues there.

"As for how he’s going to be used, I think you have to wait and see how this season unfolds and what happens. I adjust on a daily basis, whether there’s injuries or non-injuries, whether a guy is playing well, whether a guy is struggling. I adjust, so I can’t define his role right now as this is what it’s going to be. But one thing we like is we talked about him being able to play centre as well, he’s a versatile player and he’s played all three positions up front.”

Now Julien didn’t say that because he intends to start Byron at centre, though several people jumped to that conclusion when we tweeted these comments out on Wednesday.

Julien said it just to reinforce how versatile a player Byron is, and he was alluding to a point he made earlier in his Zoom conference about being able to rely on Byron at centre in the event that one of Nick Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, Danault or Evans gets injured.

From the wing, Byron’s speed gave some of the Canadiens’ best players fits on Thursday.

And we don’t know if Byron’s as worried about his job security as some of the fans think he should be, but he made quite a statement in the opening minutes of this game — blocking Edmundson’s shot and storming down on a breakaway from his own blue line before deking Allen out with a forehand-backhand goal to put Team White up 1-0.

Jonathan Drouin wheeling and dealing

We thought Drouin was the best player on the ice on Thursday.

You can see the chemistry he built with Suzuki in the bubble transferring to the practices we’ve seen so far and the game that took place on Thursday.

He made some eye-popping plays.

Drouin also did this to score the game winner:

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