Is Anton Lander a long-term fit for the Edmonton Oilers?

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Anton Lander surprised a lot of people with an exceptional performance in the NHL in the second half of 2014-15, a performance which earned him a two-year contract extension and likely saved his major-league career.

It may not be enough to keep him with the Oilers, though, because he faces two significant obstacles. First, he needs to show that last year wasn’t a fluke, and second he needs to carve out a niche on a team that has three young skaters with impeccable draft pedigree vying for minutes at centre.

Sustain

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Anton Lander has played for four different NHL coaches, and he’s had success under one. He was arguably rushed to the majors too early as a rookie pro under Tom Renney, playing bit minutes on a bad team and eventually getting sent to the minors. He had a cameo for Ralph Krueger at a time where the Oilers were dying for help up the middle; he couldn’t deliver it. And he played for Dallas Eakins, getting a real opportunity with decent players (most common linemate: David Perron) and on the power play (average TOI: 1:05) but failing to deliver.

He finally broke through under Todd Nelson, after the two spent literally years together in Oklahoma City. Nelson gave Lander unique opportunities that another coach likely would not have and Lander found a way to translate his formidable skills to the majors under a familiar boss. The question is whether he can continue to perform for not-Todd Nelson, in this case Todd McLellan.

His actual skill isn’t really at issue. Lander has his faults (size, at times acceleration), but at his best he does a lot of things right. He plays a smart game, not just defensively but when he’s on he’s a surprisingly creative playmaker in the offensive zone. He’s a character player both on the ice, where he plays a greasy and determined game, and off it where he was voted captain by his Barons’ teammates. He can skate and he can shoot, too. But for years, we didn’t see most of those qualities in the NHL, as he played an uber-cautious and ultimately ineffective style which only really went away last year.

He can’t afford to regress, and the trouble is that the potential is there. In a lot of ways Lander’s surprising offensive production in 2014-15 looks worrisome in the rearview mirror. At even-strength almost half of his points were second assists; he scored just two goals in 38 games. He added four goals and seven points on the power play, and while he’s shown ability there he’s going to be in some tough competition for time on the man advantage.

If Lander is pushed into more of a pure defensive role, it’s not inconceivable that we could see him regress to the kind of all-defence, all-the-time player he was the last few years. Obviously, that’s a worst case scenario and far from certain, but it’s going to be a challenge for Lander to hang on to the role he claimed last season and we won’t know for sure that he can do it until he does.

Niche

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Edmonton’s centre depth chart at this moment in time looks something like this:

  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He’ll likely lead the position in even-strength minutes, play on the top power play and take a regular shift on the penalty kill.
  • Connor McDavid. First unit power play time is almost a given, and he’s likely to end up as the Oilers’ number two pivot at even-strength, though on some nights he may well push Nugent-Hopkins.
  • Leon Draisaitl. He may end up on the wing, and if he does play centre he’ll be taking on lower-end minutes. He’ll push for power play time and nobody should be shocked if he gets tried on the penalty kill, though regular duty is probably still a couple of years away.
  • Mark Letestu. Letestu is a right-shooting version of a lot of the things Lander would like to be. In all likelihood he’ll end up playing regularly at even-strength, he’s a workhorse on the penalty kill and he has history (and some success) on the power play, where he contributes a right shot and faceoff wins.

Letestu is signed for three years and is an immediate threat to Lander. He fills much the same role (depth even-strength pivot, option on both special teams) and he was brought in by the new management and committed to long-term. He’s also a right shot on a power play that doesn’t have a lot of them and that alone will give him a bit of an edge.

Longer-term, the threat is Draisaitl. The young German may start on the wing but down the road will likely end up at centre, giving the Oilers (if all goes well) a formidable 1-2-3 punch. Draisaitl is an intelligent, well-rounded centre and at some point he’ll almost certainly be taking on some defensive duties, including killing penalties.

Lander has the advantage of incumbency on both Letestu and Draisaitl, but with a new general manager and a new coach that advantage doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as it normally does and if he slips out of the gate it could evaporate entirely. It’s worth remembering that Lander didn’t show particularly well in camp a year ago when a lot of things (he needed to clear waivers to be sent down, the centre depth chart was a trainwreck) were working in his favour and if that happens again it’s going to be much easier for McLellan to hand his minutes over to the other options at his disposal.

Lander, Long-term

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There are, as we’ve just considered, a lot of elements standing between Lander and long-term employment with the Edmonton Oilers. I like what the player can do a lot, but realistically it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he ends up getting pushed out at some point.

But that’s hardly a fait accompli. Chicago for years employed Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith together on a fourth line which wasn’t really a fourth line, using the two centres as complementary faceoff men (one shot right, the other left). One route to long-term employment in a primarily defensive role would be for Lander and Letestu to form a similar partnership.

The other would be to make himself indispensable. If Lander shows strongly in camp, has success on both special teams while at the same time adding value at even-strength – in short if he holds down the job he has and continues to deliver at the rate he did last season – it’s going to be tough to move him out. Long-term Draisaitl may be a centre but he’s still just 19 years old and a couple of years at left wing will become an increasingly attractive option if there’s obviously no need for immediate help down the middle.

Centre promises to be a position worth watching for years to come, and that at least is an encouraging development for a team which has been barren at the position for many years now.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • 50 in 39

    No contending team would trade to make Nuge thier number one center. Scoring is great but you also need to win a faceoff or two in the year. Again I love the Nuge but unless he puts on 20lbs and a fifty percent face off win percent he is not a number one. the oil would trade him for Toews every time.

    • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

      Stay on point here buddy. The statement you made was the Oilers have no depth at center and need a real 2C. Your words not mine. The fact the Oilers might trade Nuge for Toews is irrelevant. Almost every team in the league would trade their 1C for Toews.. who cares.

      The Oilers have Nuge-A quality 1C who’s been doing way heavier lifting then he should of but now will see that ease off a bit with the team improvements at C. They have McDavid which need I say more? He’s ready for the NHL as a 2C today. Full stop. They have Draisaitl which everyone is forgetting about and may still need a year in an AHL/3C/4C role.. But is a blue chip prospect as a future 2C. Lander was excellent in the 3C role the 2nd half of last season. And Letestu is a perfectly fine 3C/4C…. This is a pool of C’s that may need 1 more season to hit full speed but is plenty of depth.

      It seems you also put heavy weight into how many faceoffs a Center can win as being a deciding factor on his 1C potential. you say 50%. Well Nuge was 46% on the Dot last year. The difference statistically is winning 8.5 faceoffs as opposed to 7.82. Nuge is a 1C that can and will improve. Likely McDavid will take the 1C spot or god forbid we have a 1A/1B situation… really does it matter?

      This team needs the D.. Center happily is now the least of our concerns.

      • fran huckzky

        There is lots of things to like about RNH, but anyone who says he is any better than a low to middling 1C at this point in his career is looking at things through rose colored glasses. There are many good things about his game. but lets not make him out as better than he is.

        Assuming McD develops as we hope, RNH would be one of the top 2Cs in the league. However could LD be pressing him for that spot in a couple of years.

        • tileguy

          Good-grief man, RNH is still 5 years away from where he will likely peak.

          Nuge is 22 years old and he is entering his 5th year of NHL employment almost all of which have been against top competition at the 1C position. In 2013 he absolutely dominated his peers at the world jr championship scoring 15 points in 6 games. RNH is a 1C on most NHL teams TODAY and will only improve with time. Nuge is without a doubt a safe bet to be a top 10 Centre in the league by the time he hits full stride.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    By the way, JW …. dumb article.

    Played for 4 coaches succeeded for 1? Really?
    Nurse has also played for 2 coaches, and never even made the team… he sucks.

  • camdog

    let me start with I am sorry. I really don’t believe that we have depth at center, we have the nuge and maybe two fourth line guy and a rookie (great rookie)and a pick that was sent down last year looks very close to last year. the oil fans (me included)may want to have a real proven number 2 before real improvement starts.

    • MacT's Neglected Helmet

      I think they should resign Roy, two way deal. At this point in the offseason it is very much possible. Just added insurance and he could be had for cheap.

    • a lg dubl dubl

      McDavid is a #2 Center in this league right now. Nuge ia a #1 right now in this league. Draisaitl may not be ready just yet but could be a 3rd line Winger learning the 3C position as he goes this year. Letestu is a 3C/4C and Lander is a 3C/4C right now. I would say we have depth at center. Its the D we need fixed.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    Lander is a perfect 3rd line center.

    Draisaitl is the one that doesn’t fit anymore. Draisaitl needs to play the wing if we wants to play with the oilers.

    Pouliot-Nuge-Ebs
    Hall-McDavid-Draisaitl

    Looks good to me for a top 9.

    For me, either Yak or Drai will be traded.

    • Oilfaninvan

      If things work out with Lander and he does continue to build on last year it may make Drai the odd man out, based solely on the salary cap, and the need for a defenceman. Depth at centre is nice thing to finally have though, and it is tough to consider trading a big centre when you play in the West.

    • Dan 1919

      Lander is still far from a perfect 3rd liner because he has yet to prove he can compete in the NHL night after night. But I agree he does show promise to be an excellent 3rd line option.

      Agree with your Draisaitl comment, although most Oiler fans disagree because they think you just sit back with your feet up and draft players until you win a cup. Draisaitl is a promising prospect, and maybe he proves worthwhile keeping as a winger… But there is only so much ice time. With McDavid coming, and assuming Nuge continues to improve year after year, eventually those two will be eating up almost all the Oilers ice time at centre. With that in mind… there’s no point having an asset like Draisaitl sit on the bench playing 3rd line C just to say you have him… he could be moved for a D,Goalie, or other assets.

    • Zarny

      It’s silly to say Draisaitl “doesn’t fit” anymore. The Oilers play hockey; Drai plays hockey. It’s a pretty good fit.

      Eventually, cap issues could force Edm to move good players like Chi has had to do. At that point, if Draisaitl were clearly behind McDavid and Nuge perhaps he’s goes.

      Eventually Draisaitl could be an under utilized asset if he’s behind McDavid and Nuge. Only 60 min in a game.

      That isn’t today. Right now he’s a cheap contract with the potential to pummel 3rd line competition.

      The only reason to trade Draisaitl right now would be in a package for an incredibly sexy name on D in return. A reallocation of prime assets. I’m not holding my breathe.

      Something to consider, only 8 forwards topped 20 min a game last year. Tavares led the league with 20:48. It’s a recent trend but if ice-time ever becomes an issue I’d be tempted to just roll McDavid, Nuge and Drai 20 min a game each. If they are all going to play a 200 ft game why not?

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Lander to me looks as if he’s too eager to please the many coaches on staff. He often looks over coached, buying in to whatever system is in play. Appearing like another emotionless systems drone out there, seemingly not enjoying himself all that much.

    He needs to become a more selfish player this year. Seek some scoreboard attention and remember why he started playing the game. Let him play alongside McDavid when the opportunity arises. Maybe they can try and create another Warren Young/Johnny Cheechoo type asset and temporarily inflate his value.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      WTF does that mean… Overcoached?

      You are an idiot.

      So you are saying that he does not diobey his coaches enough.

      Ever heard of champions saying.. well everyone bought in to the system, and that is why we won?

      • Quicksilver ballet

        Like Gretzky or Messier were ever heard using those words. Yup, Glen had us playing the perfect system tonight, again.

        Might just be me, but no, i never heard Wayne or Mark utter those immortal words. Maybe that’s why they were a dynasty and not just a one year wonder you speak so highly of. I didn’t say disobey. When the coach/wife asks you to do something, listen like a guy whose been married for 25 yrs. Some selective hearing may be in order.

        You’re obviously part of that idiot 20 something yr olds who think they know twice as much crowd.

    • fran huckzky

      A players job is to buy n to whatever system is put in place whether he likes it or not. Also, Lander has worn a letter in OKC, Swedish junior team and Swedish national team, For you to call him a follower and not a leader is ridiculous/

  • Randaman

    I think we have the POTENTIAL of depth at Center. RNH is a good 2C with potential of of being a 1C. Lander had some good moments last year and has POTENTIAL to be a 3C. Letestu is a 4C….

    Draisaitl, McDavid and Yakimov have lots of upside.

    Right now, like last year we start the season with 2 NHL centers and lots of potential.

  • Train#97

    admiralmark is that you MacT? Connor may be a great player but I would say not a number 2 center quite yet we thought the big guy was our guy and that was a train wreck. please realize that we could use a stop gap center to play and teach. We want to compete. Also yah we need D men more but we could help the center men cheaply where the D men are a mess.