In many ways, the emergence of Anton Lander in the second half of the 2014 – 15 season was the best part of a very bad season for the Edmonton Oilers.
In one fell swoop the Oilers had shown they could develop a true top nine forward (not drafted in the top five) that had a combination of grit and skill, could win faceoffs, and possessed some natural leadership abilities as well as character. Once Dallas Eakins was fired, and Lander became Todd Nelson’s chief reclamation project, the player gained momentum and confidence and finished the season with decent numbers (.52 ppg for 20 points in 38 games last season.
As should happen, Lander was rewarded with a modest, but appropriate 2 year $1.975M contract and suddenly a player that was on waivers at the beginning of the year had etched out an important niche on the team.
But in spite of that success new challenges loom on the horizon for 2015 – 16, hurdles that Lander will need to overcome if he wants to maintain forward momentum. The coach that helped him get on track is no longer with the organization, and with numerous off-season upgrades, (both in trades and player development), Lander could indeed slip back if he doesn’t find a way to keep pace.
And a rival emerges . . .
The first person Lander will need to impress at training camp is his new hockey boss, Todd Mclellan. Coaches generally speaking, favor veterans and Oiler’s GM Peter Chiarelli’s off-season signing of seasoned center Mark Letestu provides motivation for Lander, but also a threat to his ice-time.
Especially when you consider Letestu has four season’s where he has played an average of 64 games and is an Alberta boy to boot, hailing from the town of Elk Point (also Sheldon Souray’s hometown) in Alberta’s Lakeland region. Letestu will be considered a reliable veteran. He has been a plus player the majority of his seasons in the NHL and coaches tend to favor defensively sound skaters. Lander for his part has never really been close to being a plus player in the two seasons he has played 20 + games with the Oilers. Of course that needs to be tempered with the fact the Oilers have been among the worst NHL teams in the last 10 years, but nonetheless, it doesn’t help his case.
Lander can overcome the challenge to his number 3 center spot but he will need to continue to improve on what he does well. Topping that list would be face-offs. In today’s possession game, things are a whole lot easier when you start with the puck, and last season Lander emerged as true duelist on the dot. You would have to think Lander’s faceoff development gave management the confidence to deal Boyd Gordon and free up some cap space. And while he became a leader on that regard he could certainly improve. Through 38 games last year Lander had a faceoff percentage of 50.1% based on an average of 15.01 minutes TOI. When we balance that number against other centres on the Oilers, he looks ok, almost halfway between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (45.7%) and Boyd Gordon (55.9%). However Lander needs to keep his eye on Letestu who sports a very nice 52.9% for face-offs. Realistically, to maintain his pecking order, Lander will have to at least match a faceoff win percentage of 52 – 53%.
The importance of Lander’s faceoff percentage is likely linked not only to his ice-time, but his time on the PP where Lander netted almost half of his season total. Last year he saw a lot of duty on the #2 powerplay where he could win the faceoff and pull a Craig Simpson or two in front of the net with some ugly goals. If he isn’t able stay strong in the faceoff, not only will his ice time suffer, but the precious time he receives on the powerplay as well. So his focus on this aspect of the game is key.
The other elephant in the room is Lander’s skating, which most feel is labored and can use some work. Letestu by comparison is considered a strong skater, so Lander should be taking some direction from Oilers skating coach David Pelletier in the off-season. As far as I can observe, Lander gets to where he needs to be and survives with Hockey IQ and anticipation, but I’m not a hockey scout either.
But the one intangible that may just allow Lander to leverage a spot on the Oiler’s core is not a skill but definitely an asset, and that is his leadership abilities. Lander and a C on the crest have been a pairing for a good chunk of his hockey career. He was a captain of the Tre Kronos U-18 team in 2010 and for Sweden’s WJC U-20 team later that year. A few years later in 2013 he would earn the C for the Oilers affiliate in Oklahoma, and would keep the captaincy for two years until he was promoted to the Oilers in 2015, no easy task for a Euro player in North America. Do we see a pattern here? Lander is a leader and the Oilers have very few natural leaders in the core, or on the team.
So at the end of the day Lander can ensure his spot on the team, and ice time are consistent by simply shoring up his game. Make improvements on what he does well (faceoffs) as well as what he doesn’t (skating) and everything will fall into place. Draisaitl could emerge and challenge Lander for the no.3 spot but most feel he is a top six skater and will either shift to the wing or maybe get more seasoning in Bakersfield. As for Mark Letestu, he’s a useful addition for the Oilers, and should only be positive motivation for Lander.