An analysis of Josh Anderson

I’ve had hockey on the mind today, and after watching the last half of the Montreal Candiens @ Edmonton Oilers match tonight, I thought I’d write something up some of my thoughts. Ever since falling into obsession over the Canadiens (also called the Habs) when I moved to the city, I’ve been slowly accumulating a hoard of knowledge on the workings of ice hockey and the National Hockey League, and it’s about time I put it to use. This piece grew as I wrote it, drawing on a handful of topics I had wanted to write about for a while. Don’t worry, you’re not expected to know anything beyond the basics of Hockey (or ball-and-goal based team sports in general) to follow.

Today we’re talking about Habs forward, #17, Josh Anderson. Anderson is often described as the archtypical “power forward”, an attacker who is fast and strong, overwhelming their opponents through sheer force rather than intelligent play-making or a precise shot. And yeah, he is fast, and he is strong. You can often tell who he is on the ice just by looking for the huge man (6’3” and wide, big even by NHL player standards) in red going faster than everyone else.After being traded to the Habs in 2020 he earned the nickname “the Powerhorse” for his extra gear, and tendency to come through in high-pressure moments. I was obsessed with this when I learned about him, of course. He was fun to watch too, even though he wasn’t very good at shooting, or passing, or defending... but by god can he make a guy go crunch against the boards. He makes things happen, for better (usually), or for worse.

If you’re looking to understand the game of ice hockey, power forwards are about as simple as it gets. There’s plenty of nuance to how a player 20% faster than anyone else on the ice interacts with the standard flow of a game, but anyone can understand how being fast and strong makes an attacker hard to deal with, especially on skates where it’s difficult to change your trajectory and easy to get knocked off balance. In this case, Anderson’s speed and immovability make up for his weaknesses in other parts of the game. When he’s deployed onto the ice, his strategy is to bully his opponents into giving over the puck, then book it down the ice for a scoring chance.

Being a physical outlier in any way (tall players with longer reach, short players with quicker shots, light players unexpectedly shifting their momentum) gives the extra advantage of being unpredictable to opposing teams whose structure hinges around the capabilities of the average player. And when the Powerhorse comes charging down the ice at you, you’re going to panic and make mistakes, and those mistakes are where many of his goals come from. In 2019, the record-setting Tampa Bay Lightning experienced one of the biggest chokes in hockey history as they lost their first playoff round 4-0 to Columbus (Anderson’s first team), who had never won a series in their existence. When asked why they struggled after the loss, Tampa coach Jon Cooper said “we didn’t have an answer for Josh Anderson”, which is pretty high praise for a guy who doesn’t so much shoot the puck as buck it towards the net while skating at Mach 2 and hoping for the best.

In the Canadiens’ 2021 playoff run, which coincided with my moving to the city and caused me to become fascinated with the game, Anderson was completely off the reins. He didn’t score very often, just 5 goals in 26 games, but he took a piece of an opponent at every opportunity, never giving defenders a moment to breathe. Hockey is a team game, played in shifts one minute at a time, and any advantage you can create by tiring out or bruising your opponents can be capitalized on by your teammates if you don’t get the chance yourself. The 2021 Habs were an underdog, a grindy, defensively responsible team, who would beat you up in all three zones until you coughed up the puck, making you pay for every mistake, and nobody embodied this more than Josh Anderson.

While I’m giving more context, his playstyle led to one of my all-time favourite hockey photos: the Powerhorse galloping towards the net makes Marc-Andre Fleury, one of the greatest goaltenders of this century and noted wife guy, completely lose track of the puck with just two minutes left in a one goal game. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and Anderson buries the easiest goal of his life, tying the game, and goes on to score the overtime game winner too just for fun. The Habs take the series lead 2-1 over the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that was supposed to mop the floor with them. Six days later, a Habs team that was not expected to win a single playoff round, let alone three, wins game 6 in their own barn to continue on to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 28 years, and an unsuspecting alice gets teargassed leaving work as Montreal cops try to calm the celebrations. But that’s a story for another time.

Unfortunately, the Lightning did have an answer for Josh Anderson this go around, and the Canadiens would lose to them in the final. The team completely collapsed in the following off-season, to injuries, regression, and players at the end of their contact leaving for greener pastures, but that’s also a story for another time. The Habs needed to strip down the roster, trading veterans for young prospects and draft capital, and spend a few years in mediocrity before they could emerge a contender again. The Powerhorse, however, had earned himself a long contract extension due to his nickname effectiveness, and was sticking around. But what kind of role would a one-trick-pony playoff warrior have on a rebuilding team?

Ever since the team entered that rebuilding phase 3 years ago, under the mentorship of the legendary Martin St-Louis as the new head coach, they’ve taken to a much more cerebral style of play. Typically, offensive and defensive systems are meant to be simple, with designated areas for creativity, so that all 5 players on the ice know where to be at all times. Reduced mental load for decision-making means fewer mistakes, which means better hockey.

St-Louis, on the other hand, is a believer that hockey IQ (decision making, vision, prediction) can be taught, or at least amplified, by practice and coaching. His systems are very flexible, and encourage players to make plays and anticipate their opponents’ on their own initiative. It’s a philosophy that perfectly fits a rebuilding team, one more interested in processes than results, and one that can afford to see its players as works in progress rather than finished products to maximize value from. It’s also a philosophy that poorly matches Josh Anderson. He’s never been a cerebral-, well, smart player, and he’s been struggling these last few years. It doesn’t help that he’s been starved for goals recently, with only 2 goals in 28 games in 2024 so far, 8 in 68 on the season, after managing to put up 21 in 69 games last year. It’s been hard to watch at times.

In post-game interviews, Anderson has talked about trying to refine his style of play, adding in extra elements while still keeping it simple, and kept up the optimism about his goal scoring returning. He’s been saddled with criticism that trying to get him to think too much is a lost cause, that a one-dimensional player should play one-dimensional hockey. You can lead a horse to water, etc. However, in tonight’s game against the Edmonton Oilers, he did something I haven’t seen him try before.

Anderson would get the puck, accelerate to his trademark high speeds, dash by defenders and burst into the offensive zone, charging at the net- and then pass backwards, to an anticipating teammate. This caught defenders completely by surprise; typically the goal of hockey is to get the puck close to the opposing net, and when a player is approaching your net at high speeds, making themselves a very difficult target to disrupt (as a Powerhorse is want to do), their best move will always be to crash the net and try to score, and defenders have been taught to always move to counter that. A player further from the net, in a normal game scenario, will almost always be less of a threat.

Thinking a bit more, though, it makes perfect sense for Anderson’s game. It’s been made clear that, at the present, he’s not having much luck scoring on his own. None of his line-mates have the speed to keep up with him when he gets going (or anyone else on the team for that matter), meaning his greatest offensive strength is not of much use since his rushes will always leave him alone. Maybe he’s gotten too predictable? Too many years in the league and everyone knows his tricks? For whatever reason, he can’t get the puck in the net like he used to.

However, he can still use his speed to gain the zone, avoiding offside, and rushing towards the net will create a negative pressure zone behind him as opposing players move to cut off his threat- a hole his teammates can exploit. If they know to be behind him when he enters the offensive zone, he can make a pass back to a teammate with better play-making ability, who will now have some space to work with, and canter over to the net to look for deflections or rebounds off the goalie. It doesn’t require him to change anything fundamental about his game; most of the burden is on his line-mates to follow-up his entry. It simply recognizes that a one-dimensional player can prance backwards as well as forwards.

He made this play only twice tonight that I noticed, but both times it proved effective at giving his team a chance to set up some structure in the offensive zone. He didn’t contribute to any goals (in fact it was his misplay that set up Edmonton’s first goal of the game, oops), but it stood out enough to inspire me to write about it some. Ice Hockey is a fascinating game, as complex as it is chaotic, and noticing and understanding these little details, and how they fit into the larger game plan and the arc of players’ careers, is why I love following it. Having seen what Prime Anderson was like, I shudder to think what he could do if he managed to be a bit more clever with his game.

I yearn for the day that the Powerhorse will once again terrorize the frozen fields of Montreal, inspiring fear, or at least intense annoyance, in the hearts of all who oppose him. That day may never come again; at 29 years of age Anderson is “getting old”, by National Hockey League standards. Speed tends to be one of the traits that ages poorest, and when his legs start to fail him there won’t be much of a player left. He may have peaked, and left his nickname behind him, forced to be content with merely holding his own. But who knows, maybe Coach Marty will manage to teach this old horse new tricks, and he’ll start using his strengths more effectively. Maybe in a year or two when the team is good again he’ll find his old self again in the playoffs.