There is little doubt that Oilers prospect Anton Lander will compete for NHL work next season. He’s coming off a great playoff run – he scored five times and picked up eight points in eight games for the Barons – and with the rumours of departures for Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger he’s one of the few depth centres in the organization who can be reasonably confident about even being in Edmonton’s system for training camp.
However, both the team and player will likely be better off if Lander starts the year in the AHL.
Entering his third professional season, Lander has yet to excel for a stretch of any real length in the minors. He joined the Oilers out of training camp in his rookie season – likely far earlier than he should have – and spent most of his first year in North America playing fourth line minutes in the majors rather than top-six minutes in the minors. The lockout gave him a prolonged stint in the AHL, but he struggled to find the range offensively – he had just 10 points in 39 games from the start of the season, before being recalled to the NHL and then getting injured.
Lander has been much better since coming back from injury – in eight games at the end of the regular season he scored six times and added four assists, a scoring streak that extended into the playoffs. Part of the reason he’s been so successful is that goalies just can’t seem to stop his shot – Lander has scored 11 times on 45 shots (in both the regular season and the playoffs) since coming off injury, for a ridiculously good 24.4 shooting percentage. Prior to that, he’d fired at a 3-for-60 clip (5.0 percent).
Lander has burned through two of the three seasons where he is exempt from waivers; 2013-14 is his last opportunity to be assigned to Oklahoma without needing to clear waivers. If Lander is going to be more than a defensive zone specialist at the NHL level, starting him in the AHL and giving him more opportunity to play an offensive role is probably ideal, and next season is the Oilers last chance to do it. There’s simply no sense in rushing him to the NHL; at worst he’ll be there next year anyway.
If Anton Lander starts in the majors next season, exactly who would the Oilers recall if they ran into injury or performance problems at centre? Assuming the organization allows Chris VandeVelde to leave after a disappointing season, there simply isn’t another option for bottom-six minutes in the system. Restricted free agent Mark Arcobello might be a possibility for a skill line, but the organization showed they didn’t trust him with a role on a defensive line in 2013, and perhaps understandably so. With Lander in the minors, the Oilers have internal pressure and options if somebody gets hurt or a veteran’s performance falls off a cliff; with Lander in the NHL the Oilers have no options – and no option to replace Lander if he struggles.
They could address that to some degree by signing a veteran AHL/NHL ‘tweener, but there’s always the risk such a player would be snapped off the waiver wire. Even if he wasn’t, the team is likely better off with Lander playing heavy minutes in the developmental league and the veteran centre getting fourth-line minutes or press-box time in the NHL.
From both a depth perspective and a developmental perspective, there are obvious benefits to starting Anton Lander in the minors. He has not been so compelling in AHL play that he’s earned the right to NHL minutes, and there’s little reason to believe either the player or the organization would be better off handing him that role.
Recently around the Nation Network
At Flames Nation, Kent Wilson profiles Darkhorse Draft Target: Jordan Subban, and identifies him as the kind of high-risk/high-reward player that can make a team look really smart with a depth pick
Subban has good bloodlines as well as high-end offensive acumen. He is both creative and mobile, which are good skills to have in a modern defender. On the other hand, he’s significantly hampered by his size and the fact his own zone game is apparently still very raw. At least one of those things will have to change to a non-trivial degree for him to have a real shot at getting any sort of ice time at the NHL level. Coaches will sometimes trade size or a defensive game for goals from the blueline, but rarely both.
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