The term ‘unicorn’ was coined in the basketball world. It qualifies big men who can dash around the surface and generate offence with a variety of subtle, controlled movements that aren’t usually accessible to heavy and long-limbed players.
Is a Josh Anderson a unicorn? Not exactly. He lacks the glow that would make him the focal point of fan attention on the ice, but his power forward breed is still seldom found in the NHL.
The 6’3” winger has remarkably refined skating mechanics. Usually we see players of that stature hop on the ice, achieve less knee bend, ankle flexion, and/or hunch over their skates. They also aim to conserve a bit of momentum to win sprints to loose pucks.
In contrast, Anderson’s game is filled with rapid stops and starts. His technique, heavy on crossovers, is much more conducive to speed. His body drops in the direction of his steps to generate momentum, his outside edges grab the ice and add extra propulsion due to the lateral twist of his ankles, and even if his posture remains upright, his feet recover low to the surface at a high rate, allowing him to rapidly chain pushes. Once the winger reaches top speed, we also see the optimal limb flexion in forward strides that is typical of smaller, speedy skaters. That will be key in the type of game the Montreal Canadiens try to play.
Montreal hasn’t lost any counter-attack speed in the trade of Max Domi. On breakouts, Anderson can slash across the neutral zone to stretch the ice and push back defenders, creating room underneath for his linemates to control the puck. He can also rapidly catch up to teammates to create odd-man rushes.
That being said, speed is only one of the elements that makes a player a great rusher. If the opposition allows Anderson enough space and a great enough momentum difference, he can break in the offensive zone with possession. Once he gets there, fancy mid-lane cuts and delays aren’t in his repertoire. Anderson limits himself to two plays: releasing in-stride to beat goalies, or create favourable rebounds for teammates.
If the opposition forms a coordinated neutral-zone defence against his rush, the winger usually prefers to chip the puck to the back-wall for himself or a teammate. He won’t be the main carrier on a lane, as his game shines more away from the puck.
It’s not that he lacks handling skills — well, maybe it is. It depends on how you define skill. Anderson can pull the puck away from defenders, dangle them sometimes, and change the angle on passes and shots to move them around opposing bodies. His precision is fine. But he is limited as a playmaker for two reasons. He has inconsistent pass-reception (especially on the backhand), and a lack of awareness of space and options.
The best NHL players, the ones who create shift after shift, are the ones who make the most of all the feeds they receive. If the puck flies toward their feet, they instantly deflect it up to their stick, and if it slides to the wrong side of their body, they use the reverse face of their blade to softly catch it. Anderson has trouble anticipating and adapting his hand and blade position quickly to catch off-target feeds and rims. The puck tends to bobble away from him, which limits his ability to quickly make a subsequent play.
At times, a fog also seems to cling to Anderson as he skates up ice. He lacks awareness or feel for the position of defenders and teammates. He rushes himself when he has space and overhandles when he doesn’t. He seldom checks over his shoulders to locate linemates before receiving possession and only does it inconsistently when he controls the puck. It leads to poor puck-management, or possession being thrown away.
He generally leaves dangles and high-danger pass attempt to teammates. Unless circumstances are stacked in his favour, he plays within his strengths, which is perfectly fine and even desirable. He cycles the puck and repositions as a shooting threat.
What Anderson lacks in the playmaking department, he makes up for with above-average scoring instincts, or the ability to attack pockets of space at the right time and speed to capitalize on passes. He is not Cole Caufield, a master at this aspect of the game whose release is mechanically stronger than Anderson’s, but the power forward will still complement the Habs’ distributing centres better than the majority of wingers on the team.
He is at his best as a shooter when he can fire from cross-ice passes, either in one motion or with two rapid touches. Near the blue paint, when the puck sits in his feet, he can also hit the top of the net with barely any angle to do so.
Which brings us to his trademark: the net drive. When the puck enters the offensive zone off the rush or moves to the point on the cycle, the winger rushes in front of the goalie. He arrives with momentum and slips behind defenders or shoves them away, creating a pocket of space for himself to deflect pucks and jump on rebounds.
At times, that 6’3” frame barreling toward the crease also generates its own gravity. His presence pulls defenders away from their coverage and opens up space for teammates, both in the slot and on the periphery.
The winger finished in the top 20 in shots per 60 minutes over the past two seasons. He sits among great company on a leaderboard that is topped by Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher.
The winger can also manufacture secondary offensive opportunities for his line. If the puck escapes the grasp of his team, he gets it back with a few quick strides, a big hit, or a stick lift, allowing the attack to quickly reform against a disorganized defence.
Like his offensive game, however, Anderson’s defensive play is mostly sustained by his superior tools. He can pressure a large area of the ice with his feet and reach, identify passing lanes reasonably well, and maintain the right positioning away from the play, but the opposing puck-carrier often attracts his entire attention, making him vulnerable to manipulation and back-door plays.
The winger is at his most effective defensively when he can hunt the puck, especially before it crosses his defensive blue line. He doesn’t always have the patience to angle opponents to the boards, preferring to launch himself at them to cut their momentum and immediately separate them from the puck. If he misses, his speed still allows him to recover defensive positioning.
Anderson’s high-energy play and his large defensive impact radius make him a dependable and effective penalty-killer. When defending a man down, he kills the play up ice, holds it in the offensive zone for precious seconds (a talent that reminds you of Joel Armia), and in-zone he forces attackers to constantly rush their decisions with his range.
Area of development
For Anderson to live up to his contract, he has to score. And to a lesser extent, he has to manage the puck well and continue to develop his ability to create space for others. He already does it through his speed and net-front presence, but he could attract defenders even more by improving his board play.
Contrary to expectations, it’s not rare for bigger forwards to have trouble protecting the puck as effectively as smaller forwards. It comes back to skating mechanics and agility. The best puck-shielders are the ones who use leverage, lower their centre of gravity, counter-push against defenders, and explode away while keeping the puck out of reach. Strong small forwards can more often better perform those skills than their long-limbed, less coordinated counterparts.
Considering his uncommon, unicorn-like tools, Anderson could definitely learn to better apply those puck-protection mechanics, especially if he improves his feel for defensive pressure, his ability to quickly handle rims, and works on his posture.
When in possession of the puck near the walls, he relies on his hands more than his body to protect it from the defence. As he sometimes fails to properly locate defenders behind him, the disc can get exposed and taken away. The winger’s high posture also makes it easy for defenders to unbalance and even pin him to the walls.
He needs to shoulder-check more to better identify support, where pressure is coming from, and keep his body between opponents and the puck. His knees should be bent and his back angled toward defenders to resist pressure. To avoid pins, his feet should be moving away from traffic and from the wall. Armia, a player of similar stature but a better handler and protector, would be a good model for Anderson to emulate.
Improving his puck-shielding abilities is how the newly acquired winger can best increase his impact on games and earn consistent production. It would make him an even better offensive creator and remove some of the pressure from his teammates to make the plays.
Let’s play a game called “Match the Heatmaps.”
If you paired both blood-red net-front areas, you win!
In all seriousness, there is more to a stylistic fit than a heatmap, but it’s not hard to imagine Anderson finding success in the Habs’ point-shot and net-front-stack system. Columbus’s mobile and offensively inclined defencemen like to activate from the point to create wide offensive cycles and plays to the slot. It’s a style that will benefit Max Domi and that also created some opportunities for Anderson. But now the towering scorer will get more occasions to battle in front of the net than he ever dreamed of. Simply from his usage and the sheer increase in volume of occasions to play his way in Montreal’s system, Anderson’s point and goal totals should rise.
His battering ram-like presence fits Montreal’s pressure-heavy and counter-attack style. He can push the pace of the game in both the general sense (raise its tempo to catch the opposition off-guard) and in the strategic sense (dashing ahead of the breakout to push back defenders).
When it comes to special teams, although Montreal has a strong rotational cast of forwards already on the penalty kill, namely Phillip Danault and Artturi Lehkonen, and Nick Suzuki and Armia, Anderson could play minutes there, too, just like he did in Columbus.
For what it’s worth, in 2018-19, the winger scored a few of his goals on the power play from the bumper and net-front position, which were two areas of weakness for Montreal. In the middle of the ice, Anderson can’t distribute, reposition his feet, or shoot as quickly and as cleanly as some of the best slot players in the league, but his particular skill set might still be worth a try in the position. If it fails, well, just stick him in front of the goalie.
Flexibility is one of the elements that Anderson clearly has over Domi. He could put the opposition under great heat with Danault and Lehkonen, add an extra gear to Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s attack, or bring some sandpaper and a finishing touch to help Jonathan Drouin and Suzuki.
This last combination is probably the most intriguing. Both Suzuki and Drouin love to control the flow of the play and could benefit from having a predictable off-puck presence on their line, one who can create turnovers and find open ice to shoot off their passes. Those two linemates are certainly more skilled and capable of scoring by bouncing pucks off Anderson than Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno, his two main partners in Columbus over the past two years.
In a few words, the winger’s skill set is one of the rarest in the league and represents a great fit for the current team. That being said, he can’t use it to full capacity. It means that he has room left to improve if he puts in the work, especially in the playmaking department or his ability to hold the puck under pressure and find outlets.
Due to the lack of diversity in his game, he will likely go through streaks; periods where everything clicks and goals come in succession, and others where the back of the net eludes him.
Although his reach will never diminish and his sound skating technique will carry him for multiple years, if his body breaks down, he won’t have a fall-back game. His decline could be abrupt. Late in his career, he won’t be a player who’s scoring will be preserved by an ability to read the play one step ahead of the opposition.
In the nightmare scenario, it is possible that what is anticipated as a strength — his ability to mesh with everyone — never materializes. Maybe Anderson’s limitations actually drag down some of the Habs’ playmaking centres and further limits the scoring of a player like Danault. But I would bet on the contrary.
Truthfully, for many of the reasons detailed above, I like the acquisition. Maybe the organization has an overly optimistic view of the player considering the contract awarded, but it’s at least possible that he lives up to it for a number of years. One way or another, on the opening night of next season, the Habs will ice a better team with the physical and scoring presence of Anderson than the one that left the post-season bubble.
- High pace of play
- Net-front game
- Scoring instincts
- Ability to pressure
Areas of improvement:
- Lack of diversity