Josh Anderson's first season with the Montreal Canadiens has been turbulent and erratic, but in many ways serves as a mirror of his team's season more broadly.
Anderson was acquired by the Canadiens from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Max Domi and a third-round pick prior to the 2021 season, and was promptly signed to a seven-year, $38.5 million extension, a decision that I criticized openly in our North Division preview, calling it the worst deal of the offseason.
This isn't a mea culpa of sorts. Anderson's production has been erratic, he's disappeared for large stretches, and yet he finds a way to produce when it matters most for his club, as evidenced again by his monster performance in Game 4, scoring two goals including the overtime, season-saving winner.
The 27-year-old started 2021 on fire, with a memorable two-goal performance in a season-opening loss against the Maple Leafs, where he was clearly the best player on the ice. Anderson notched nine goals during his first 13 games, while the Canadiens bolted to an 8-3-2 mark, suggesting that Marc Bergevin's polarizing gambit paid off. At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds and excellent top-end speed if given room to accelerate, Anderson's skill set has seemingly outweighed his production throughout his NHL career. And yet, it finally seemed like he was putting it all together, rewarding the Canadiens' faith in him.
Then came the dry spell for both Anderson and the Canadiens. During a 17-game stretch spanning almost two months, Anderson recorded just two goals as the Canadiens slipped away from competing for the division's top spot, a distinction that ultimately didn't matter as they bounced their arch-rival Maple Leafs in the most crushing way imaginable. (An interlude from a Maple Leafs fan: I'm not owned, really, it's fine!)
Anderson, to be clear, is not solely to blame for the Canadiens' corresponding poor play when he doesn't produce, but is indeed a mirror, and Montreal slumped to a 16-8-9 record by Game 33 of the condensed season. But he has a tendency to score in stretches, a maddening glimpse into the Canadiens' overall potential that was only fulfilled during their improbable run to the Cup. Anderson didn't record a single point during his final 11 regular season games, as the Canadiens slumped into the playoffs. No one saw their march to the Final coming.
An identical script emerged during the postseason. Anderson scored during Montreal's Game 1 victory against Toronto, and though he was kept off the scoresheet for the rest of the series, he continued to be pain in the ass, as the Canadiens rallied from a 3-1 deficit. But as he tended to do during the regular season, Anderson's offensive production was largely non-existent afterwards. He didn't do anything of note during the second-round sweep of the Jets, but when he finally arrived again, it had a massive impact.
With the semifinal series against the heavily-favoured Vegas Golden Knights split at a game apiece, Anderson exploded for two goals, including the overtime winner on a tally that may very well serve as one of the turning points of the Canadiens' playoff run. He may have earned his offensive hibernation afterwards.
One could argue that Anderson's career game against the Lightning on Monday was too little, too late. That would be sort of unfair, as the Lightning are a far superior team. Anderson was signed to produce like a 30-goal scorer, and though he hasn't done that, he's made his moments count. In a similar vein to the Canadiens' at large, Anderson's highs are ecstatic, his lows are depressing, and right when he is counted out for good, he shows why he has the potential to be the best player on the ice.
Anderson is a maddening player to account for. His contract won't age well, and it's hard to argue that the Canadiens received the return on value through Year 1 that they were expecting, but if there is a concept of a big-game player, Anderson is that, and he in many ways is a reflection of Montreal's roller-coaster season.
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