Anton Lander made the jump directly from the Swedish Elite League to the National Hockey League this season. He did some good things – including a role on the penalty kill as one of the Oilers’ third set of forwards.
Should he break training camp with the Oilers next season?
Perception is a funny thing. There was a loud clamour about 20 games in this season for Magnus Paajarvi to be dispatched to the minors to regain his confidence and offensive game and develop into a more effective player. It was a point-of-view I agreed with – in fact, I argued that Paajarvi should have had a full year of seasoning in the AHL last year – but by virtually every measure of ability other than “total minutes on the PK” Paajarvi was a superior player this season to Lander.
Paajarvi started more shifts in his own end than Lander. He picked up more points – even adjusted for ice-time – than Lander. The Oilers did a better job outshooting and outscoring the opposition with Paajarvi on the ice than Lander. In virtually every way, Paajarvi did a better job of helping the Oilers win than Anton Lander did.
From a performance perspective, Anton Lander and his six points should not have been in the NHL in 2011-12. From a development perspective, the case is even more difficult to make.
Anton Lander played a total of 594 minutes in 56 NHL games this year, averaging a hair under 9 minutes per game at even-strength and 1:36 on the penalty kill. In the AHL, under the strong coaching of Todd Nelson, and playing a key role on a successful team, it’s not hard to imagine him playing nearly twice as much. He could have been a top-six forward option, a regular on the penalty kill rather than an auxiliary, and based on his point totals in Sweden he probably would have ended up on the power play next year. Even if he’d stayed in Sweden he would have ended up with nearly twice as many minutes on a per-night basis – he played 18:19 per game for Timra in 2010-11.
In short, the Oilers opted to keep a replacement-level 20-year old on the NHL roster, playing half as many minutes as he would in a developmental league, for reasons that are at best obscure. They sent him down to Oklahoma City later in the year, probably so he could see some ice-time and get into some playoff action with a good team, and Lander so far has responded with one goal and six points in 16 games, though it’s only fair to note he’s been slowed by injury along the way.
What do they do with him next season?
It’s more difficult to cram the genie back into the bottle than it was to let him out; in other words, having played Lander at the NHL level for most of this season, it’s more difficult to demote him to the minors out of training camp next year. The team should do it anyway.
The main reason is for Lander’s development. He’s surely benefitting by seeing NHL players in the minutes he does get, but getting stuck on the fourth line isn’t doing him any favours over the long haul. He can play big minutes in the AHL, work on his offensive game, spend more time on the penalty kill, and just generally prepare himself better for a full-time job in the NHL. He is, after all, a prized prospect, and his work in Sweden suggests more offensive ability than he had a chance to show this year.
How will the Oilers replace him at the NHL level? With the greatest of ease. Fourth-line guys who can penalty kill a little bit are typically available by the dozen in free agency every year. As one example, Zenon Konopka (who made $700,000 this season in Ottawa) is a free agent this year, a superb faceoff man, capable of killing penalties, and ran up 18 major penalties for fighting this year. Not only does he add the fourth-line toughness that the Oilers love, but he’ll likely cost just six figures and is a better faceoff man and probably a better hockey player in the here-and-now than Anton Lander.
There’s another factor too: if Anton Lander is in the minors, he can be called up when there’s an injury. If Anton Lander is in the majors, then the Oilers are calling up Chris Vande Velde and Lander’s moving up the depth chart. Injuries will happen, and they’re easier to live through if an NHL team has near-major league guys like Lander sitting in reserve in the minors.
None of this is meant to slam Anton Lander. Lander doesn’t even turn 21 until tomorrow, and he’s trying out for one of the most difficult jobs for a young player to land: defensive stalwart. But from a developmental perspective it makes sense for him to work on his total game in Oklahoma City, from a winning-now perspective it makes sense to bring in a better player or one who adds another dimension, and from a depth perspective it makes sense to have him in the minors.
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