Twenty-two games into 2013-14, Anton Lander remains stuck at one assist.
I can’t help thinking that’s going to kill his Oilers career, and possibly his NHL ambitions.
Believe it or not, Anton Lander is an elite AHL player, or at least he played one this season.
For a while, he was taking on tough assignments on a line with Linus Omark, and seemed to defer to Omark offensively. Lander produced in the role and outplayed top AHL lines, but as long as Omark was on the unit it was fair to wonder whether Lander could carry the offence at the AHL level.
Omark was gone by Christmas, and a weird thing happened: No matter who Lander played with, he kept producing. Since January, sans Omark, Lander has 33 points in 25 games in the AHL. He didn’t fluke his way into those points; believe it or not he can both make passes and finish them. He was the offensive centerpiece of a frequently fluctuating top line that kept producing regardless of who was on the wings.
It looked like the final step in Lander’s evolution. He’s a high character guy, someone who says and does the right things and was chosen as Oklahoma’s captain this year despite occasionally uncertain English. He makes smart decisions with the puck and plays a low-risk game. The only real question was whether he could score enough to hang around in the majors, and in the minors it looked like he’d cleared that hurdle.
As one person employed by the parent club told me, “We have to give him a chance.”
Lander isn’t a top-six guy in the NHL, and he doesn’t have to be. All he had to do was score enough to stick around, to show that he wasn’t a younger version of the ‘Belanger Triangle’, where offence goes to die.
He didn’t get a real shot earlier this year, but Lord knows he’s been given an opportunity on this latest call-up. He’s averaging a hair under 17 minutes per game, getting power play time, and getting shifts with people like Jordan Eberle and David Perron.
He hasn’t looked bad, for the most part. He’s been a nice piece of the penalty kill, and he’s not a guy who gets embarrassed five-on-five, unless he’s taking a faceoff against Joe Thornton (sidepoint: the NHL highlight package on that goal is a fantastic example of the things that SportsNet misses when it skips faceoffs, something the network does over and over again).
But he can’t score, and he’s not a good enough player to get by on zero offence at the NHL level.
There are five games left in the season. There’s no downside to leaving Lander in a feature role (and precious few alternatives anyway), and so he probably has exactly that long to show something.