We all know the story from last season: the coaching staff fell in love with Anton Lander after a hot preseason. At the same time, Gilbert Brule was struggling, and so the coaches sent Brule to the minors and handed the fourth line job to the rookie Swede.
Is Lander losing that job with his work in the minors this year?
The question with Lander has always been offence. The following are his numbers since his draft year, along with the equivalent NHL points total over 82 games:
Lander’s numbers in Sweden indicated a low-scoring forward who could chip in the odd goal; given that Lander’s primary value since draft day has rested on things like his defensive game and intangibles like character, that was just fine. The problem is that in his first North American season Lander struggled to deliver even modest offence: after scoring twice in four preseason games, he tallied two goals over 56 games the rest of the year.
It’s been a similar story in the minors so far this season. Lander’s been getting opportunities when in the lineup – typically he’s been on the third line and the second power play unit when dressed – but he’s gone pointless through six games. That’s not a big deal, really – six games is not a long span of time.
What is more important is that Lander a) hasn’t looked all that dangerous, either and b) seems to have lost the confidence of the coaching staff. Lander’s played in six of nine games (prior to Sunday). Chris VandeVelde has played in eight of nine games. Tanner House has played in six of nine games. Both House and VandeVelde are competing for the same job that Lander’s looking at right now: center of the Oilers’ fourth line.
VandeVelde has always been Lander’s natural competition for the role. Right now, he seems to have the third line job in Oklahoma locked down, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mark Arcobello (at least in the absence of Josh Green) centering the top two lines. He probably doesn’t have the same ceiling as Lander – VandeVelde, a 2005 draft pick, is more than four years older than the Swede – but in the here and now he’s likely a better player.
The third man in this conversation right now is Tanner House. House is a late bloomer: he was never drafted, and was a rookie professional last year at the age of 25 after finishing his college career. But he does have some points in his favour. He’s a right-handed shot, a rarity among Oilers centers. He’s a good hitter (he hammered Chay Genoway legally on Saturday); he also fought twice last year and he’s dropped the gloves once this season. There’s also the possibility that he brings a little more offence to the table than VandeVelde or Lander – he was a point-per-game guy his last two years in college, and scored 20 points last year despite being buried on the depth chart.
At this point, House is an extreme longshot, but by eye this year he’s been one of the Barons’ better depth players. He’s bright, he’s tough, and he’s shown more than the vast majority of the Baron’s bottom-six. On Saturday night, Todd Nelson promoted him to the third line in place of Curtis Hamilton as the game wound down; when a 4-on-3 penalty kill situation came up with 37 seconds left in overtime, House was sent out along with VandeVelde and Colten Teubert.
Lander’s been given opportunities in accordance with his status as one of the team’s ‘of interest’ prospects, and likely he’ll continue to do so, meaning that he has an opportunity to jump ahead of VandeVelde here. On the other hand, if he doesn’t a year or two of AHL seasoning isn’t likely to do him any harm, either. Lander is still quite young and the Oilers didn’t invest a second round pick in him because they thought he was going to be a fourth-line plug in the majors. He’ll get more ice-time in the AHL than in the majors.
House probably won’t have an NHL career. That’s harsh, but as an AHL fourth-liner at 26 he will need to do a lot this season to earn another NHL contract (his entry-level deal expires this summer), with the Oilers or with another club. The reality is that most guys in a similar situation at this stage of their careers don’t make it. With that said – he really has looked quite good, and it’s plausible (particularly after the NHL’ers return to the majors) that he gets a push from the coaching staff.
Todd Nelson’s been pretty clear by how he’s used these three centers that Chris VandeVelde is the one he trusts the most. Based on that, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Oilers choose VandeVelde over Lander for the NHL roster once major league hockey resumes.
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