Anton Lander has many fine qualities as an NHL centre. At his best, he’s an excellent two-way forward, chipping in offensively and taking care of business in his own end of the rink. He kills penalties, he wins faceoffs and both his youth (believe it or not, he’s only 24) and his price-point are items in his favour.
But none of that’s going to matter unless he can generate something more than zilch offensively, which is all that he’s managed this season.
Missing Mr. Nelson
No player benefited more than Lander when the Edmonton Oilers promoted Todd Nelson to their head coaching job. No player suffered more in Nelson’s absence. Lander’s offensive numbers are night and day under that coach:
- 2011-14 (Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins): 94 games, 2 goals, 8 points (0.09 points/game)
- 2014-15 (Todd Nelson): 37 games, 6 goals, 20 points (0.54 points/game)
- 2015-16 (Todd McLellan): 48 games, 0 goals, 2 points (0.04 points/game)
Lander has played 180 games in the majors now. In the 143 he played under non-Nelson coaches, he’s managed 10 points. In the 37 games he played under Nelson, he put up 20 points.
It would be tempting to dismiss that as a hot streak, except that Lander’s AHL numbers show he’s a guy with legitimate offensive ability. He had 31 points in 29 AHL games before his recall in 2014-15. When I was in Oklahoma in 2013-14 he had 52 points in 46 games, and did it while consistently playing top opponents and more often than not starting shifts in the defensive zone.
This is a player with real ability. Oilers fans saw for half a season a player who could really help Edmonton in a third-line centre role. For whatever reason, Lander since hasn’t been able to even come close to what he managed that season.
Lander has another year after this one on his contract, but given his modest $988,000 cap hit there’s a real chance that he’s waived out of training camp next season if he can’t show something this year; he’d be cached in the minors at a modest $38,000 penalty to the Oilers and at that point would need to work his way back. His best chance of returning in even a fourth-line or 13th forward role is to find some offence over Edmonton’s final 32 games.
Projected lineup v CBJ: Hall-Draisaitl-Purcell, 67-97-14, Kassian-Letestu-Yak, Korpi-Hendy-Pak, Sekera-Fayne, Reinhart-Schultz, Nurse-Gryba.
— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) February 1, 2016
Right now, it appears that Lander has played his way out of the Oilers’ starting rotation, but that won’t be forever. Teddy Purcell seems a likely trade candidate at the deadline and when he goes the logical play is to move Matt Hendricks to the wing and bring Lander back in as fourth-line centre. Other players may be dealt, too, and if not there are always injuries to think of.
However his opportunity comes, he needs to chip in some offence. He’s 0-for-42 on shots this year and at times has been almost comically unable to finish off plays.
If he can do that, Edmonton has room for him. His salary is modest; he’s only being paid as a fourth-line forward. A fourth-line forward with a 54.5 percent faceoff win rate, surprisingly good on-ice shot metrics (at least away from Lauri Korpikoski) and ability on the penalty kill is always going to be able to find NHL work if he can chip in even the smallest amount of offence.
So far, Lander hasn’t been able to do that. His NHL career may depend on him turning a corner down the stretch.