At what point is the Edmonton Oilers depth chart weak enough at centre to justify the recall of Anton Lander? For the majority of Friday’s game, the club iced a lineup with two natural centres and two converted wingers in the middle – is that bad enough to make bringing up a pivot palatable or is it necessary for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to get hurt before the team looks to recall a centre from the farm?
We Love You, We Love You Not
When it comes to development, the best NHL organizations can churn useful players out of nothing while the worst ones can turn useful players into nothing. There really isn’t much question as to which end of the spectrum the Oilers belong.
We’re getting to a point where it’s hard not to see a pattern in the Oilers’ approach to their prospects. For players picked relatively early, the first years are generally great; Edmonton simply can’t wait to get them into the lineup or at least into the AHL. It’s why Sam Gagner was elevated to the majors at age 18; it’s why the heart of the 2010 Draft was promoted to the AHL as soon as it was permitted. The Oilers are firm believers in the baptism-by-fire approach to development.
But the enthusiasm of those early years eventually gives way to anger and disappointment as the players fail to live up to expectations. Gagner, rushed into the NHL before he was prepared for a spot, stagnated and never devoted the attention to detail that might have been drilled into him at a lower level. His draft pedigree and obvious offensive acumen bought him time that other players weren’t afforded, but eventually the team soured on him and flipped him for another middling contract. It’s a story that Leon Draisaitl should probably acquaint himself with.
It’s a story that also covers Anton Lander’s experience. Early on the team couldn’t get enough of his polished defensive game and obvious character; it’s why he ended up centering the Oilers’ fourth line in his first season in North America. He played 56 games in a wasted developmental year and took ages to recover his offensive game in the AHL; those 56 games still represent the majority of his NHL career.
The team seems to have soured on him. They kept Will Acton over him out of training camp in consecutive years and now even as the team’s awful centre depth chart crumbles under injury and the rigors of an NHL season, Lander stays on the farm where he’s scoring at a near point-per-game pace and carrying the defensive load the way he has for ages.
The Oilers as currently constituted should represent a perfect opportunity for Anton Lander.
For one thing, the team is well out of the playoffs and likely to stay that way. Judging by the comments coming from the general manager (“based on the asking price, we’re not in a position to pay the asset ask for a positional bias”) the team isn’t interested in making a trade to halt the slump. Judging by the club’s reluctance to claim Kyle Chipchura off the waiver wire, it isn’t interested in adding free pieces in a band-aid move, either. That makes the rest of the year essentially an exercise in development for the hockey team and an exercise in teeth-gnashing for the fans.
And opportunities abound on the current roster. Let’s say that the Oilers have completely written Lander off as an offensive presence. No problem: This season’s game plan called for an all-defence “fourth” line that took defensive zone draw after defensive zone draw. At the moment, Boyd Gordon’s injury has wiped that plan from the board, but why not try sticking Lander in that slot? Nobody has ever questioned his defensive game, and if it works it frees up Gordon to centre one of the team’s other lines.
On the other hand, if the Oilers haven’t completely written Lander off offensively, now’s the time to give him a try. Leon Draisaitl and Mark Arcobello aren’t exactly winning plaudits for their work this season; neither is scoring and Draisaitl’s defence was so bad on Friday that Dallas Eakins benched him for the second and replaced him at centre with converted winger Tyler Pitlick. Even if the organization is so blindly stubborn on Draisaitl that they insist on playing him down the middle, there’s no reason not to play Lander at centre given that in Gordon’s absence the team only has three healthy pivots.
The worst-case scenario in all of this is that Lander fails to show much at centre. If that happens, the Oilers will be losing hockey games (just as they are right now) and they’ll have given Lander an honest shot down the middle. In the best-case scenario, Lander shows enough to be a No. 4/No. 5 centre for the team next season, possibly freeing up Gordon for other use and providing Edmonton with a cheap forward option and one less slot to fill in the offseason.
There is literally no downside to recalling Lander. The Oilers have three healthy centres and one of them is playing so badly that he can’t hold down a job. If Lander doesn’t work out, the Oilers will be no worse off; if he does work out they won’t be flushing a useful player for nothing this summer.
The Waiting Game
Purcell flips up w/Hall & RNH, as he’s done at times in-game the last couple of tilts. Only other change likely vs NYR: Scrivens starts.
— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) December 13, 2014
Instead, we wait. We wait while the Oilers keep feeding Draisaitl minutes regardless of results, we wait while they abandon the idea of a useful fourth line, we wait while wingers like Matt Hendricks and Tyler Pitlick are tried at centre. We wait while Lander continues to excel in a key role on the farm while being paid NHL dollars to do so.
But this isn’t a new thing. If there’s one thing that anyone still watching this team knows how to do, it’s wait.