The Training Camp Lessons of Anton Lander

51-Lander-9

Training camp matters. It just matters less than we – and in some cases the players – think it does. Just consider what happened to Anton Lander and Will Acton last year.

Training Camp, Fall 2014

41-Acton-3

Acton and Lander entered training camp a year ago on relatively even footing. Acton had played 47 games in the minors and 30 in the majors the preceding year; Lander had played 46 and 27 respectively. Acton had posted mediocre numbers in the American league but scored a little in the NHL; Lander had been an elite centre in the AHL but managed just a single assist in his NHL run despite several opportunities on good lines.

I strongly felt – and I was far from alone in this – that the balance of evidence suggested that Lander was the better player. Neither had particularly stood out in the majors, but watching both play in Oklahoma City in 2013-14 I knew that Lander’s ceiling was much, much higher; the Oilers just had to find a way to get him play in the NHL the way he did in the minors.

The Oilers disagreed. Acton made the team out of camp. Lander was waived and sent to the minors.

What Was Said

Dallas Eakins 2

Dallas Eakins isn’t particularly well regarded in Edmonton these days, but I doubt many people would argue with the general principle he outlined on the day the Oilers made their final cuts of camp. I’m going to quote him at length here:

It’s been a terrible day. It’s been hard and heart-breaking and something that you don’t wish on anybody to go through. We’ve got some emotional, upset, disappointed men in our organization today. We feel for them, but that’s the competition of training camp. It’s not a final blow; I think that’s the hardest thing to get through to the guys today, that everybody thinks the team was picked today. Well, the team was picked for game one. After game one things change, and game two and that’s the way it goes. I can say from my experience it’s the worst day I’ve seen for disappointment, emotion. An extremely hard day for everyone in the room… You try to deliver the message, but we also understand that we’re going to have to swing back to these guys again and talk to them again and make sure that they’re alright, that they understand that’s going on. But in the end, that’s competition. It’s when you get so close on a number of these issues, it came down to – one of the decisions was based off the position, so that’s how close it gets. But you’re right, I’m not sure a lot of our words were heard in those meetings; I don’t expect them to be. I’m sensitive to it; it seems like yesterday I was sitting in that chair and it’s not a fun day. So we’ll swing back around and build these guys back up because we’re going to need every one of them.

It’s completely understandable that some players weren’t in a mood to hear that message. Steve Pinizzotto (who would get 18 games later in the year) had been brilliant in the preseason and realistically done everything that had been asked of him; he got squeezed out. Given that it was likely his last opportunity to secure an NHL job, it would only be natural if he was bitter about the decision.

But the message was accurate. It’s a long, long season. Players get hurt and players struggle in the NHL. People in the AHL stand out. Changes are made as a result. As Eakins acknowledged, those guys who were final cuts were still important to the organization in the season to come.

Craig MacTavish3

Regarding Lander specifically, Craig MacTavish had this to say:

I think Anton [Lander] had a much better camp than he had last year, but I think there were guys that outplayed him. We’re not closing the book on Anton, but he’s got to back and wait for his next opportunity.

What Ultimately Happened

51-Lander-7

Acton played all of three games in Edmonton in 2014-15, despite making the team out of camp. He was demoted and played just six games in the AHL before being shipped out of the organization entirely.

Lander played 29 games in the minors and was very good. He got a shot later in the year and put up 20 points in 38 NHL games. He was rewarded by the Oilers with a two-year contract extension.

13-Pinizzotto-1

Nor was Lander an isolated case. Pinizzotto, Iiro Pakarinen and Tyler Pitlick both ended up getting roughly the same number of games as Jesse Joensuu in the NHL, despite Joenssu winning the last right wing job in camp (also worth noting: the difference in quality between the three turned out to be very minor indeed). Martin Marincin ended up playing more than Brad Hunt and Darnell Nurse and was only passed by Oscar Klefbom in the back half of the year; the latter three names were on the Game 1 roster while Marincin was down in the minors.

This also applies to Todd McLellan. Last fall, defenceman Matt Tennyson scored eight points in 27 games in the NHL in 2014-15, despite being cut from the team ahead of players like Taylor Doherty (zero NHL games) and Taylor Fedun (seven NHL games in 2014-15).

On one level, training camp matters far less than we tend to think it does. The end of camp is in some ways an artificial boundary, and teams have to make decisions between closely ranked players at the bottom of the roster. Those decisions are always liable to change if they appear wrong five, 10, 20, even 60 games into the year.

Davidson, Brandon

On another level, camp does matter. Players exposed to waivers or returned to junior can be lost for the year (or permanently); the decision to cut Lander would have had nasty repercussions if one of the league’s other 29 teams had been interested. So, potentially, a decision to cut Brandon Davidson this year might matter more to the team over the course of 2015-16 than a decision to send down Nurse, because Nurse will always be available while Davidson could plausibly be claimed off waivers.

Training camp and the drama surrounding it is generally enjoyable for fans, particularly after a long and hockeyless summer. But, much as with reality television, it’s worth remembering that a lot of the drama is centered on petty difference that really won’t matter much in the long run.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

    • Ready to Win

      Any time I feel the anger swelling up inside of me, I just close my eyes and whisper “McDavid . . . McDavid . . . McDavid”.

      Then I’m all better.

    • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

      I don’t blame MacT and Eakins – their only problem was incompetence. I blame Katz and his hiring and then keeping an incompetent Kevin Lowe at the most senior hockey level in the organization. Katz’s personal relationship with Lowe got in the way (note Lowe still has a snr. non-hockey position in the organization with the Entertainment Group).

      Lowe was not a competent VP/P of Hockey Ops – great player, decent coach, OK GM but not POHO. Lowe hired the wrong GM’s and then the wrong coaches which ultimately saddled us with this debacle.

      Katz bought the team in July/08 and promoted Lowe to VPOHO. Since the 08/09 season the Oil averaged 64 pts/season while the NHL average was 85. The problem was it was not fixed until Bob Nicholson was brought in in 2014 and he took the decisions out of Katz’s hands.

      If you hire a contractor and he does a terrible job and then you rehire him, blame yourself, not the contractor. Katz is your man.

      • If you consider MacT’s performance through the lens of tanking the team for high draft picks, then you’d have to consider him an unqualified success. Notice how things “miraculously” changed when it became apparent we were going to get McDavid?

        And BTW – Katz was the guy who signed off on that strategy. I wouldn’t doubt if he was the one who came up with the plan in the first place.

        • Management underperformed and the fish stinks from the head. Katz could/should have taken Lowe out as his performance was beyond horrible i.e. everyone he hired under him drastically underperformed – winning is the only yardstick in pro sports.

          • There’s the fan point of view and the business point of view. While fans think they actually have a say, in a city where there’s 1500 people waiting to buy season tickets the business can do anything it wants.

            This business decided to tank for high draft picks. If you make that assumption everything else we saw (including MacT’s moves or lack thereof) starts to make sense.

    • Dwayne Roloson 35

      I just want to thank Mac-t and Eakins for getting us Connor McDavid. I joked about us getting McDavid when he was only 15 or 16 and starting to get talked about more. I didnt think it was possible that we could get worse but we found a way. This will payoff.

    • Ready to Win

      I don’t like trolls, I don’t agree with trolls and I don’t usually give them any time. In your case I will make an exception – you, whoever you are, are an as****e of the highest degree and it would be greatly preferred if you would keep your asinine comments to yourself. Taylor Fedun is a million times the person you are or could ever hope to be.

      • Woah calm down, are you Davidson’s mom? all I said was he was not Lander. Davidson does not have the upside that Lander has or had, so it wouldn’t be as big of a deal to lose him on waivers. And saying Fedun is a pimp is a compliment, that guy is awesome. In no way was my comment a troll.

        • Joy S. Lee

          Ok, wait. I mean, I understand part of the concept where he’s in charge with the ladies, but… it’s complimentary to be a pimp, these days? Guess I really am getting old. If orange is the new black, is blue the new pink? Is the conversation some guys are having on here meaningful to anyone over 19? Hey, WMMWMMMWMMM! No, WTFRUTA!?? Oh, IHNIWIALT. Well, TOTDIFTITC.

          Gawd… I really do get confused. Gotta go look up senility. Or is that ED? WTF? I was told I looked good in blue. Guess I have to buy pink stuff now. The world really has gone to hell in a handbasket! Er, sorry, “the world really has gone to HIAHB.” Guess I should brush up on the revisions we’ve made to the English language, while I’m at it.

          Oh, and a final shoutout to the author, JW, for thinking outside the box, or at least looking at things through a different lens than the norm. Makes for good discussion. Cheers man, YDRFGAFAIAC!

  • Ready to Win

    Davidson wears number 88. Eric Lindros wore number 88. I think it’s clear that Davidson should be playing in the nhl…

    And let’s stop talking about the past… I’ve paid good money to forget about the last decade, I don’t need to be reminded of it!!

  • Joy S. Lee

    What I like the most about Lander is that he is very smart just about always making the right play. His intangibles are good too very good in the room and well liked from all accounts. His is versatile and can play up and down the line up in any forward role. He is a keeper another young good veteran and comes cheap easy on the cap.

  • Dwayne Roloson 35

    We dodged s serious bullet when due to Eakins gross incompitence that Lander didn’t get claimed off of waivers last year. Lander is going to be a huge piece of the puzzle moving forward and Eakins was the major reason for Mac T’s demotion.

  • Harry2

    Theres just no way I can imagine Chiarelli giving up Davidson to keep Nikitin. Especially after NN’s poor training camp showing thus far.

    Nikitin will not be on Edm’s opening night roster. Book it

  • NJ

    Fedun also didn’t make the team last year for the sharks out of camp. Tennyson last played in February, while Fedun got called up during the last 7 games of the year.

    I would suggest that because of timing of the callups, maybe Fedun performed better in the AHL to earn the callup however I suppose because he signed with Vancouver as an UFA, he chose not to try to bypass the Sharks defensive depth or the sharks passed on him.

    Still following the kid to see if he can overcome the odds!

  • Harry2

    The difference with Todd M as a coach and Eakins /Mac T is that the Todd coaches and teaches Eakins and Mac T just brought them in and threw them to the wolves and said sink or swim ………Boy am i happy those folks are not making the decisions or coaching the oilers anymore.

  • Harry2

    eakins brought us how many ex marlies that sucked. Yet the one that got away was Colbourne to the Phlegms for a 4th rounder. Does he know how to recognize talent or what. Lander was ready for the NHL a while back but egg$hit didn’t want anything of that.

    But we have him to thank for CMD

  • hagar

    I think I have an ultra mild form of ptsd. Something actually felt weird scrolling down and seeing eakins’ face pop up on my phone screen..

    Then to go a little further and the wax figure of Mact pops up, and I got the same weird shiver.

    I am not joking btw… some sort of reaction happened in both cases.

  • hagar

    The topic of who should be the captain of the Edmonton oiler’s captain in the long term is fascinating. I have heard that Taylor hall is a bit of a cork soaker when it comes to interactions with day to day edmontonians so he ain’t it. Ference is the right person for the job but his age probably will keep him out of the lineup and it will not behoove the oilers to select a captain who isn’t on the ice every game. Rnh is still a bit young, Eberle is the atb’s gap toothed stoner-looking man child, and the rest of the team (minus the core players under the age of 25) are rentals. I would love to hear about what everyone thinks about who should be the long term captain but I can’t help but feel that lander is right type of person for that role. He’s beyond the norm in terms of competitiveness, he is articulate, humble and the guy has some serious talent. With that being said and with both feet on the soap box, I really hope Taylor hall reads this and starts to think about how he interacts in the community because I have heard from multiple people that his respect for the common peeps is abnormally low. With that being said, I’m 100% okay with hall being let go for a couple of players with a bit of talent and a first rounder, preferably from the likes of Arizona or some other warm climate city where Taylor can act like a bit of a princess without being recognized.

    I love playing team sports and know that talent is best maximized by a leader stepping up by instructing specific how to play, how to live,and in the case of professional sports, how to be perceived by opponents, fans and especially the community. They pay your rent Mr. Hall so be nice when you order your suits, order your dinner and buy your trinkets.

    With complete optimism that Taylor hall reads this, I am sure that his on ice frowny face will dissipate this season and our team will be, at the very least, respected and competitive. When it comes to selecting a captain, give it to Hendricks and wait for nuge, McDavid, or lander to show if hearts are better created in red deer, Sweden or Ontario.

    • NJ

      Nuge. Is. Not. Too. Young.

      Brilliant 2 way center, really starting to show how good he is is. Perfect choice for captain.

      Hendricks may spend time in the press box this year. I don’t care what a captain does for the community, if he leads the team on the ice and in the room, that is what matters. Would I prefer he also be a community ambassador? Sure. But it’s no requirement of mine for a captain.

  • hagar

    In your article debating between Lander vs Acton, I noticed that there was no mention that Acton’s father was also on the coaching staff. I thought there were rumors that it was nepotism, not merit, that got Acton the starting roster job over Lander, or do you not believe that?

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    I like what you write Willis but upon seeing Eakins Picture I just could not bring my self to read it. I am done with the last 9 years. I have moved on.

  • moosewacker

    JW your article has a tinge of revionist history to it………..maybe you wrote about seeing Lander a little better than everyone else did?

    What I do recall is coming to a conclusion ( as most fans did) that the problem was not the players but an egomaniac coach that was in love with his own voice. As I recall most of the professional writers ( yourself included) kept repeating that coaching was not the problem.

    Anyone that Dallas touched regressed……….worst coach in Oilers History……….I’ll go as far as saying worst coach in Hockey!

  • Joy S. Lee

    BTW… on the Anton Lander factor… versus Will Acton…

    …I remember the day Lander was sent to the farm through waivers to make room for Acton on the Oilers; and I recall wondering in no uncertain terms what the idiots running this team were thinking. I mean… seriously!??@@!!!

    This past year proves me right for wondering. Actually, a few weeks after the move proved me right. They almost gave away a legitimate prospect for an over-the-hill never-was-an-NHL-player-who-just-happens-to-be-the-coaches-son with no real benefits and everything to lose. Who makes decisions like that? If Lander was of questionable character, then maybe, but they KNEW what kind of guy he is.

    Complete lunacy. And now, he’s going to be an integral part of the team’s future (he’s 24). As an organization they’ve unquestionably underperformed, but man, are they ever lucky.