Lander Demotion a Wake-Up Call

The NHL waiver wire on Monday was full of names that may pique some interest around the NHL. Among them was Edmonton Oilers’ center Anton Lander. After failing to cement himself a spot on the Oilers’ opening night roster, Lander is set for assignment to the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL but will have to pass through the fingers of 29 other NHL teams first. With the names available on the wire today and Lander’s lack of production over the last two seasons, he should pass easily.

A Promising Start

Todd Nelson
Todd Nelson got a lot out of Lander in terms of production. (Ross Bonander / THW)

There was a time that Lander was thought to be a bonafide NHL third-line center. Spending years in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons, Lander took the long developmental road to the NHL. While many of the Oilers prospects were rushed into the Oilers’ big-league rotation, Lander played 137 games in the AHL in preparation for regular employment in the pros.

From the AHL to the NHL, Lander had a great run under former Oilers coach Todd Nelson and it was his two seasons with the Barons that got people’s attention. Starting with the 2013-14 season (52 points in 46 games) and followed up by a strong 2014-15 campaign (31 points in 29 games), Lander was showcasing his talent on a nightly basis. Coach Nelson was providing Lander with regular top-line minutes and giving him opportunities in game-changing situations.

Meanwhile, throughout the 2014-15 season, the Oilers were struggling and chose to make a coaching change. Nelson became the interim head coach of the Oilers and not long after, knowing he could trust his AHL leader, Nelson called up Lander to help his Oilers team. Lander was used in many of the same situations Nelson had used him in Oklahoma and he continued his strong play, scoring a respectable 20 points in 38 games. The results were so positive, Edmonton assumed they’d found a diamond in the rough and a player they could plug into their NHL roster.  Edmonton immediately signed Lander to a two-year extension and believed they had their permanent third-line solution.

Things Started to Turn

Oilers head coach Todd McLellan will see a lot of new faces at Oilers training camp. (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)
Oilers head coach Todd McLellan didn’t get the best Anton Lander. (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

Over that summer, Nelson was let go and replaced by Todd McLellan. Under McLellan, Lander hasn’t come close to producing the same results, but that doesn’t mean Lander wasn’t given opportunities to succeed. After the coaching change, Lander scored a measly single goal in 61 games. His lack of production earned him time in the press box, essentially killing any credibility he had built up in four prior seasons of hard work.

Sparingly, the Oilers used Lander on the penalty kill and he took important faceoffs in the hopes they could find a specialty player that could be used in key situations. At the very least, if Lander could play a useful role, perhaps he could find chemistry on a line where some of his offense would return. It didn’t.

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This past summer, the writing was on the wall. Oilers’ GM Peter Chiarelli started to add depth in all positions and some of Edmonton’s prospects were starting to develop. Lander’s position at center, which was often his to lose thanks to a lack of suitable replacements, became a position of strength in the organization and Lander was going to have to earn his spot with competition for jobs. Again, he failed to do so.

Lander’s 2016 preseason was not particularly impressive. He failed to show he’d gotten some of his game back, while others like Drake Caggiula shined when given an opportunity. Lander offered some of the same skills he’d always offered (penalty killing and faceoff ability), but his spot on roster became expendable.

Wake-Up Call

One might expect that a player of Lander’s experience would be claimed on waivers — two seasons ago he might have been. It could come as a shock for Lander when he isn’t.

NHL teams will have a number of options available to them and just because Lander offers some penalty killing skill, faceoff help and leadership ability, does not mean he’ll be a guaranteed pick-up. The opposite may be true, in that, NHL teams may steer clear of a player who looks to have digressed over the years, while still relatively young.

If he does pass through waivers, Lander will once again need to prove in the AHL that he can dominate. From there, he may get a call as an injury replacement, but if he intends to keep his job, he’ll need to start bringing the Oilers some offense.

Lander seems to be a great kid, a fantastic teammate and a real leader. It’s unfortunate that his NHL career has taken a turn for the worse. But, the NHL is a fickle business. The Oilers are in win-now mode and have no time to keep players who aren’t going to offer them the best possible chance to win hockey games.

Perhaps this will be a hard lesson learned, especially if Lander isn’t claimed. Hopefully, it doesn’t mean Lander isn’t NHL material and this is simply a blip on the radar of his NHL career.