The summer conversation about the possible solutions to Edmonton’s problematic centre depth chart has for the most part passed over Anton Lander. There’s a simple reason for that. He’s played 94 NHL games and scored two goals.
But it would also be a mistake to write him off completely.
On The Mind
The Oilers’ official website caught up with Lander a few days ago and the young pivot made it very clear that he was disappointed in his performance in Edmonton last season. Asked a softball question about what the biggest thing he took from 2013-14 was, he opened up on something that had clearly been weighing on his mind.
“This whole experience, all the situations in Oklahoma where Nelly put me on the ice; it was a lot of fun,” he said before adding, “But otherwise you can look at those games in Edmonton too where I got a big opportunity from Dallas. I wanted to play way better than I did, so that’s something that’s been bugging me during the summer and something I want to prove when camp starts.”
It’s understandable. Lander was exceptional in OKC, scoring at better than a point-per-game pace while taking care of his own end of the rink. He was decidedly less than that in the NHL, where he picked up one assist in 27 games (and a minus-10 rating) despite some opportunities with good players.
The comment is also pretty typical of Lander, who in conversation rarely focuses on his own positives. Even after really good stretches he’s obsessed with improvement; the disaster that was his NHL stint would not have sat well with him at all.
Lander was also asked how he’s improved over the last few years.
“I’ve been getting stronger and a little bit quicker on my skates,” he said, but he didn’t stop there.
“Of course the confidence,” he added. “You get used to leagues. That’s been a big thing for me, to get used to the different leagues and different teams. When you’re coming back from another year you’re more used to players, coaching and the organization.”
Confidence is often used as a catch-all by people talking about hockey. A player starts scoring; he has confidence. He stops scoring; he needs to get his confidence back. It’s overused.
But it’s also a recurring theme with Lander, who in January talked about how “it’s a different kind of game” playing lower in the lineup but that in a role of responsibility on the farm he gains in confidence and makes more plays. Asked if that meant his game changed in the NHL, his answer was suggestive.
“Yeah,” he said. “It makes sense I think, that’s how it is. You have to play hard, you have to shoot the puck in and get the energy going for your team when you’re on the fourth line. I mean, I don’t know what to say, I just try to play my game and try to be good every night. But when you get more ice-time you get more opportunity with pucks too.”
I may well be reading too much into comments like that, but Lander was an assertive player in the AHL, the kind of guy who could make plays with the puck and dominate entire shifts. In the NHL, even when he was promoted to good lines, he tended to be deferential, tentative.
It’s entirely possible that what I’m suggesting isn’t actually what happened, that it’s an example of confirmation bias at work and that something very different was the problem. But when I listen to what Lander told the Oilers’ website, it makes me wonder if he didn’t feel like an AHL player on an NHL team last year, like someone who didn’t really belong there, and that it may have made a difference.
There’s hope for Lander – many AHL players have gone to have major-league careers without having the kind of season he did last year with the Barons. Hope is not the same thing as realistic expectation, though, and a team must be prepared for some things to go badly – in this case, for Lander to keep playing in the NHL the way he has in the past.
On the whole, the Oilers seem to me to have been overly optimistic in their plans at centre, but in Lander’s case they seem to be taking a reasonable approach. He’s probably No. 5 on the centre depth chart in the here-and-now, and there is an opportunity for him to win an NHL depth job in camp. The Oilers have gambled a cheap, one-year deal and regardless of the outcome they’re not going to suffer too badly.
It’s a good approach. There is every possibility that Lander will continue to spin his wheels in the NHL. But it’s also entirely reasonable to think that this is the year he makes the jump.
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