I’m not sure I can recall a time when so many household names were listed on TSN’s Trade Bait board.
Some of this is merely about teams looking to improve heading into next season. Some of it is the beginning stages of preparation for the upcoming Seattle expansion draft. And some of it, unquestionably, is the economic crisis surrounding the league and the impact it is having on the salary cap.
At any rate, a lot of talent is available. Players like Winnipeg forward Patrik Laine are going to draw the most attention, but the reality is Winnipeg probably isn’t moving off of an ultra-reliable 30-goal scorer unless their significant asking price is met from a team desperate for shooting talent on the wing.
Further down the table is where intrigue grows, with less certainty about a player’s true talent and lower asking prices.
One name that fits that description is Columbus Blue Jackets winger Josh Anderson.
The 26-year-old is coming off of an ugly and injury-riddled 2019-20 season – he managed just one goal and three assists in 26 games, and is finishing up a six-month recovery from shoulder surgery he had back in March. Anderson is a restricted free agent now, with his previous three-year, $1.8 million cap hit contract expiring last month.
Anderson has established himself as a middle-six forward, but Columbus making him available isn’t surprising. He’s recovering from a serious injury and it’s not clear if he fits into Columbus’ long-term plans.
There are three important points here that make Anderson a quality buy-low candidate, so to speak. One, he’s shown that he can produce at the NHL level. Two, the player has seen his value relatively diminish because of a poor prior season ending with invasive surgery. Third, and perhaps most importantly: he is cost controlled on his next contract. Note: Columbus did tender a qualifying offer to Anderson on Oct. 5.
Considering the financial uncertainty around the league, holding Anderson’s may be more valuable than normal. Perhaps Anderson rebounds and has a fantastic season, or perhaps Anderson needs another few months to get back to game speed. In both scenarios, you would expect Anderson to be doing it on a friendlier contract, with an awful 2019-20 taking much of Anderson’s negotiating power off the table.
At some price point, a team will agree that trading for Anderson’s rights (and subsequently signing him) will be worth it, because the risk elsewhere has been mitigated and the reward may be significant.
Should we be bullish on Anderson? I won’t attempt to answer the medical part of this question, but he wouldn’t be the first player to successfully recover from shoulder surgery.
As for the hockey question: I don’t think there’s much of an argument. Over the past four seasons as an NHL regular, Anderson has exemplified himself as a reliable two-way forward who can play anywhere inside a team’s top three lines.
If we use a regression-based measure like Goals Above Replacement to compare him to forward peers, we have a strong understanding of how and where this winger adds value:
There are two important parts here. The first is that Anderson is a reliable defensive forward at this point in his career – even in last year’s ugly season, Anderson had better defensive numbers than 60 per cent of his peers. And when he has seasons with strong offensive contributions (like his 19-goal campaign in 2017-18, or his 27-goal season in 2018-19), he looks every bit the part of a capable second-line winger.
If you don’t believe me, consider Columbus’ goal differentials over the years with him on the ice – their +36 margin at even-strength (+0.6 goals per-60 minutes) is team leading after the loss of forward Artemi Panarin through free agency:
Anderson has benefited from strong even-strength goaltending over the years, which has correspondingly helped on-ice goal differentials. But we know that he is still a positive player by expected goals, which helps take a lot of the noise of goaltending performance out of the equation.
It is inevitable that contenders around the league will line up to inquire about Anderson’s asking price because of the expectedly small cap hit, but I’m not convinced those teams – think Calgary, for example – are the best landing spot. The best buyer may be a true rebuilding team, one flush with draft picks to offer via trade, and with plenty of opportunity to ease a recovering player into the lineup.
For a cash-poor, asset-rich team like Ottawa, the gamble makes much more sense. And the Senators wouldn’t be the only team in this group. New Jersey, Detroit and Buffalo are similarly starving for forward talent and need to be considering bets like these.
Anderson is a good player, and Columbus won’t be giving him up for free. But for a quality pick or a more conservative cap-controlled player will be attractive enough for the Blue Jackets to move on from the Burlington, Ont. native.
Now we get to do something we all excel at in the year 2020. Wait and see what happens!
Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, NHL.com.