Don’t look now, but Anton Lander’s making a late run at an NHL career. Like the protagonist of dozens of different Westerns, he’s been beat up, shot, and left for dead in the middle of the desert, but incredibly it appears the flame of life has not quite been extinguished.
Ignoring his stints in the NHL, Lander’s actually been a pretty decent prospect for the Oilers. Unfortunately for Lander, it’s impossible to ignore those 100-odd games of trouble, but let’s set them aside for a moment and look at the player’s progression under Todd Nelson in the AHL:
- 2011-12: 14 GP, 1-4-5 (0.36 points/game)
- 2012-13: 47GP, 9-11-20 (0.43 points/game)
- 2013-14: 46GP, 18-34-52 (1.13 points/game)
- 2014-15: 29GP, 9-22-31 (1.07 points/game)
2012-13 was of course the lockout year, which likely slowed down Lander’s offensive progress a little (he turned a corner late that season) but the trend here is clear. Lander arrived in the AHL a pure defensive specialist, but gradually added some pretty impressive scoring touch to his game. Last season he was Oklahoma City’s captain, top penalty-killer and tough minutes centre and still managed to shoulder the load offensively; he was an impressive guy to watch and I know for a fact that view was shared by a number of Edmonton’s executives who made the trip down to the farm and saw him.
The trouble has always been that he can’t seem to translate his scoring to the NHL.
Lander stepped off the plane from Sweden and directly on to the NHL roster, blowing past an ineffective Gilbert Brule in training camp and winning a job under Tom Renney immediately. He’s made cameos in Edmonton every year since, under Ralph Krueger and Dallas Eakins and now finally Todd Nelson. This is the first time we’ve seen any offensive life from him:
- 2011-12: 56GP, 2-4-6 (0.11 points/game)
- 2012-13: 11GP, 0-1-1 (0.09 points/game)
- 2013-14: 27GP, 0-1-1 (0.04 points/game)
- 2014-15: 12GP, 1-6-7 (0.58 points/game)
One of these years is not like the others.
Lander’s one of those guys who has to prove a lot in a pretty short period of time. The good news is that he’s working for a coach who has seen him as an elite centre in the AHL the last few years, a coach who knows exactly what the upside here is and who has helped the player find his game in the past. Todd Nelson’s coaching tenure is still in its infancy, but if we were to pick one player on the roster who he’s really helped it has to be Lander, who is showing things that he’s never shown before at this level.
Thursday’s game against Buffalo (obvious joke, to beat the comments section to it: of course he played well, he excels against AHL players!) was a pretty good example. Playing between waiver claim Matt Fraser and enforcer Luke Gazdic, Lander was able to engineer Edmonton’s first two goals and then score the winner just for good measure.
In 11 games under Todd Nelson, he has seven points and is plus-one. After Boyd Gordon he’s been the team’s first choice for defensive zone draws, but despite this his underlying numbers are trending upward; after an iffy first couple of games he’s now just a hair below the team average (which doesn’t sound that impressive, but if you can get that from a dirt-cheap fourth-line pivot you take it). He really didn’t work with Nail Yakupov (20% goals for, 38% Corsi) but the line has been much better since the 2012 first round pick moved off it (67% goals for, 52% Corsi).
In my view, Lander’s still pretty life-and-death to make the roster next year, but the good news for the player and the team alike is that he has time. There are still 33 games to go before the end of the season; if he can finish those 33 in the same manner that he’s played the last dozen he can secure himself a spot on the roster.
Taking everything into consideration – AHL history, NHL history, his impressive performance of late – if I were in Craig MacTavish’s shoes and forced to make a decision at this exact moment I’d probably opt for what I did last year: A one-year, one-way deal in the $600,000 range with the idea that Lander would slot in as the team’s versatile No. 13 forward.
But that’s not a decision that needs to be made now. There’s still a lot of season left, and with guys like Derek Roy and perhaps even Boyd Gordon (I likely wouldn’t deal him in MacTavish’s place, but I understand the rationale) trade candidates there’s every reason to think that Lander will be given the opportunity to show what he can do over that span.