Drafted in the 2nd round, 40th overall in 2009, Anton Lander was expected to be another can’t miss prospect that would join the Oilers core of young stars sooner rather than later.
He did not disappoint early, making the team in 2011 as a 20 year old and played in 56 games as a freshman.
It was a number he has yet to get back to as he then went on to play a total of 59 NHL games since his rookie season.
Touted as a complete two-way player, he was seen as one of the long term support pieces for players like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Magnus Paajarvi at the time.
Too Good for AHL, Not Good Enough for NHL
In baseball, players who are seen to be too good for the minors (AAA) but not good enough for the MLB are termed “4A”players, to signify their place in baseball purgatory.
Anton Lander would be hockey’s version of a 4A player.
Last season, and so far this year with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons, he has been the team’s best player and averaged over a point per game with them. He has centred the top line and played in all situations. He has also worn the ‘C’ the last two seasons as the Barons captain.
Unfortunately for Lander, when he has gotten the call, those results have not translated to the NHL.
In 2013 and 2014 when he was called up he managed just one point in each stint. In 2013 he had just one assist in 11 games, and in 2014 just one assist in 27 games.
Coming into this season, at 23, it looked as though he was running out of chances and the NHL would not be in his future.
Finally Hitting His Stride
The 2014-2015 season for the most part seemed to be going along as the ones before. Lander was having a successful season with the Barons with 31 points in 29 games to start the year.
In late December he was given his yearly call-up with the Oilers and after his first game against Dallas going pointless and a -2, things seemed to be headed in the same direction.
Once the calendar turned to 2015 things changed though, top prospect Leon Draisaitl was returned to the CHL which opened up an opportunity for ice time and not long before Lander’s OKC coach Todd Nelson was promoted to the Oilers bench which also provided some familiarity.
Lander has played 20 games in 2015 for the Oilers to date and has registered 4 goals and 11 points in those games.
He has also endeared himself to Oilers fans as 2 of them have been game winners.
It may not look like he’s setting the world on fire, but compared to 8 points in 94 NHL games prior, it starts to look pretty good.
“I don’t know why,” he shrugged. “I just told myself in the summer that you have to go all in. Go out there and play and have some fun and it’s been working OK so far. I have to keep it up.”
The important thing to keep in mind is that Lander was never projected to be a top line point producing player.
Sure if that ended up being the case, everybody wins, but that was never the expectation.
The goal was for him to establish himself as a solid third line centre with a strong two way game that could contribute with secondary scoring.
Based on the 2015 returns, that goal looks to be still attainable and Lander could still be a valuable part of the future.
If he continues to progress the way he is, that is good news for the Oilers, as centre ice has been a certain point of weakness for them.
However the horizon could be promising with a number of young prospects looking to make their mark.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has established himself as an NHL all-star and 2014 top pick Leon Draisaitl should be back in Edmonton next year.
There is also Russian centre Bogdan Yakimov in OKC getting exposure to the North American pro game as someone who could be a valuable bottom six centre down the road as well.
That doesn’t even take into account the potential 2015 draft pick of a Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
Other than RNH however, no one can predict how either of the latter players will fare as NHL centres going forward, but there seems to be more hope at the position where at this time last year there was virtually none.
It is still a position that’s success is based on potential, but at least there is potential.
Anton Lander went from being a question mark who was running out of chances at the beginning of this season, to a player who has firmly entrenched himself in the lineup.
He may not be the elite top six centre all Oilers fan want to see, but for a team desperate for signs of improvement, especially at centre, Lander’s progress is certainly a welcome sight.
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Carl covers the Edmonton Oilers for THW as well as providing additional prospect coverage. Follow him on twitter @carlTHW, connect on Facebook or contact at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, comments or if you’re interested in him writing for you.