Canadiens Notebook: Josh Anderson appears poised for breakout season

Montreal Canadiens Josh Anderson (17) celebrates his goal with the assist by David Reinbacher (64) with teammates Alex Newhook (15), Kaiden Guhle (21) and Juraj Slafkovsky (20) during second period NHL preseason hockey action against New Jersey Devils in Montreal on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. (CP)

MONTREAL — It’s early on in Montreal Canadiens camp, and I’ve just spent a few minutes talking with Justin Barron about what he’s taken from his summer skates with Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon and Brad Marchand.

It’s after Barron extols the value of practising daily against three of the world’s best players that I ask him about other sessions he participated in before taking his first strides at this camp. The Halifax native was one of 40 players to arrive weeks early in Brossard, Que., and I wanted to know if there was anyone who really caught his eye from the informal practices he was participating in.

Without hesitation, he replied, “I think Andy looked really good.”

It’s what Barron says next about Josh Anderson that really only resonates with me as I’m watching a recording of the Canadiens’ first pre-season game at the Bell Centre late Monday night.

“He was hurt so much throughout the end of last year, so it’s probably just because I hadn’t seen him for a while,” Barron said. “Obviously, he’s a great player. His speed, just how strong he is taking pucks to the net — he looked, I thought, really good.”

Watching Anderson rush past New Jersey Devils defenders and fearlessly cut to the net in Monday’s game made it easy to forget he finished last season in a boot, nursing a high-ankle sprain that left him wheeling around the Bell Centre on a scooter.

The six-foot-three, 224-pound winger was reduced to nearly half his size after Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergachev hauled him down late in the final seconds of a 3-2 Canadiens win on March 21. Anderson went crashing into the post — narrowly missing his bid for his 22nd goal of the season — and came up incapable of putting any weight on his right leg.

But on Monday, Anderson looked as big, fast and sturdy on his two feet as we’ve seen him since he first arrived in Montreal via trade in October 2020. If not for Jack Hughes, who had a goal and two assists in the 4-2 win for the Devils, he’d have been the first star of the game.

I wasn’t there to see it live — I was with family, breaking the fast for Yom Kippur — but his performance still really popped when I watched it on TV.

The thought it evoked was: If this is the Anderson the Canadiens are getting this season, then that’s a big win for them.

What really stood out was how dominant he was throughout the entire game. He was a constant threat from puck drop to closing buzzer, showing the traits that made him so appealing to former general manager Marc Bergevin, who traded Max Domi to the Columbus Blue Jackets to acquire him three years ago.

Since then, Anderson has been, at times, electric and, at other times, static. While he’s produced consistent numbers — 17 goals and 24 points in 52 games followed by 19 goals and 32 points in 69 games of the 2021-22 season, and 21 goals and 32 points in 69 games last season — he hasn’t been consistent from game to game or within the games themselves.

But the 29-year-old, who stood out most to Barron over the last month, has been burning up the ice each time he’s taken to it during this training camp. He was the best player in a Canadiens uniform on Monday night — scoring a goal, manufacturing several quality scoring chances, registering three shots on net and using his speed and size to be an all-around menace at both ends of the ice — and if he takes momentum from that and rides it into this season, it could be his best on yet at this level.

Anderson scored 27 goals and had 47 points in 82 games with the Blue Jackets in 2018-19. He suffered a shoulder injury the following season and managed only one goal and four points in 26 games as he tried to play through it. And the player we’ve seen in Montreal since has been somewhere in the middle of that peak and valley.

What we’re seeing from Anderson, as he’s building good chemistry with speedy newcomer Alex Newhook, is a player poised for a breakout season.

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Juraj Slafkovsky getting more touches, developing

Another noticeable part of Monday’s game was how often the first-overall pick of the 2022 NHL Draft had the puck on his stick as the third member of Newhook and Anderson’s line.

Slafkovsky did some good things with it, too, and there’s reason to believe he’ll only improve in that department as he continues to get more touches.

The six-foot-four, 230-pound winger didn’t get nearly as many touches as he’d have liked during his rookie season. And he definitely wasn’t enthralled about what he did with the ones he did get, as he produced just four goals and 10 points in 39 games.

But there are indications Slafkovsky learned from that experience — and the experience of watching nearly half the season from the press box after suffering a knee injury.

On Monday, after a false start out of the gate, he protected the puck well, made a great play with it in the second period to give Anderson an excellent scoring chance and progressively built up his performance through the 19:09 he spent on the ice.

“I thought he played well tonight,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis told reporters in attendance on Monday. “I thought he had a slow start, but I thought he was really strong second, third period. To me, I felt he was getting some touches, he was using his speed and his size, and as an F1 he was very aggressive, he was using his body.”

St. Louis also pointed out this was Slafkovsky’s first game in nearly nine months.

The young Slovak wasn’t the only one who appeared a little rusty off the hop.

Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj, who both suffered season-ending injuries well ahead of the end of last season, certainly appeared behind the 8-ball at times.

They’ll rebound. And the hope is that Slafkovsky will, too, and that he’ll continue work toward becoming the player the Canadiens hope he’ll be down the line.

Having the puck on his stick more often is only going to help.

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Quick hits

• There was a lot to like Monday from Joshua Roy, who scored Montreal’s first goal against New Jersey and exhibited all the traits that make him one of the Canadiens’ most promising prospects.

“He had nice touches,” said St. Louis. “You can see he’s very intelligent, that he knows where his teammates are and knows how to get into open space. He has a lot of purpose (in his game). He plays with a lot of good intention.”

There’s time for the 20-year-old — who torched the QMJHL over the last two seasons, scoring 97 goals and 218 points over 123 games — to improve his skating.

But Roy’s hockey sense gets him to where he needs to be more often than not.

Outside of what he brings offensively, there’s a lot to like about how the 150th pick in the 2021 NHL Draft has improved on the other side of the puck.

There were signs of that on Monday, like when Roy made a diving shot-block in the Canadiens’ zone. Just as there were signs of it at the 2023 world junior championship, when he served as Team Canada’s best penalty killer.

• Roy was one of two players who showed up in suits at the Bell Centre Sunday and watched the Canadiens play their annual Red-White scrimmage. The other was Owen Beck, who won 10 of 17 faceoffs against the Devils.

Maybe it means nothing to some that they were there, but I don’t think it does. Roy and Beck, who was drafted 33rd overall in 2022, both want this badly, and neither of them are that far away from it.

It’s more likely Beck returns to Peterborough of the OHL for one more year of junior while Roy debuts with the Laval Rocket, but not before both of them continue to show they’re close to belonging in Montreal.

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• It was an up-and-down game for Logan Mailloux — and not just in terms of his performance but also in how much ice he covered.

Mailloux led the Canadiens defence in time on ice (21:00) and was all over the place. He flashed some of the brilliance that saw him score 25 goals for the OHL’s London Knights last season, but he also showed some of the tendencies he needs to clean up as he transitions to pro hockey.

Mailloux’s decision to rush the puck while the Canadiens were shorthanded in the first period wasn’t well-timed, and it bit him when Jack Hughes took it the other way and fed Dawson Mercer with a tap-in goal.

St. Louis said afterward that he’d prefer not to see that, but also praised Mailloux’s abilities in the offensive zone.

On the process the young defenceman must adhere to moving forward, St. Louis said, “I think at the junior ranks, players attack their opponents more than they attack space. In the NHL, it’s more a game of chess than it is in junior, where it’s more a game of checkers. There are times in games when you have to play checkers — and I know we have players who can do that — but the game of chess is much more important than the game of checkers.”

All to say, you have to think the game in three-dimension at this level.

But people shouldn’t forget that Mailloux has to play it more at this level — and at the professional level, in general — before he can do that more regularly.

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