Anton Lander focuses his attention on the puck while Louis Leblanc closes his eyes, terrified of the mighty Scandinavian.
I must confess that during this year's World Junior Championships I didn't watch much of the action unless the Canadians were involved. For the most part, I was too busy driving around Alberta, catching up with family, and skiing in Jasper. But one thing I did catch live was Anton Lander against the Russians. I was in the ski shop waiting for my girlfriend to finish up and the TV had the game on, so I casually looked over to see if the Canadians were playing. They weren't, but when Gord Miller told me that Anton Lander had the puck behind the net, my attention was captured in full. Lander worked up the boards, protecting the puck from the hapless Russian defender. Lander took a couple of shots in the back, then with one quick move was past that poor sap into the middle of the ice. Lander slid into the slot and deposited a beautiful backhand into the back of the net. Poor #25's exasperated goal tantrum was almost as demonstrative as my little celebration. I left that ski shop with a big smile, confident that I had seen the greatest goal in World Junior Championship history since Jani Rita's memorable slapper in 1999.
Of course, Lander's offense isn't nearly as bad today as Rita's was way back when (he had 15 points in 50 games in the weaker Finnish league in his 19 y/o season), and in fact, Lander's already taken a step forward offensively this year with 18 points in 37 games, compared to 16 points in 49 games a year ago. He's also already surpassed his shot total from last season, generating 78 this season compared to only 70 last year. The thing is, Lander also gets a tonne of ice time - no forward plays more for Timra than Lander's 18:16 per game. On the plus side, Anton Lander leads a Swedish Elite League team in ice time. That's impressive stuff from a 19-year-old who isn't an offensive force; it fits nicely into his profile as a team leader - he wears an "A" with Timra and was the captain for Sweden's World Junior team - and demonstrates that he's not just playing in the SEL, but is thriving. It's also not a big jump from the 17:52 per game he played a year ago, so it's not like the increased offense is all just increased ice time - there's real improvement there. On the minus side, he likely won't be getting that kind of ice time with the Oilers (or the Barons for that matter), so his not-all-that-impressive offense is less impressive than it looks.
But offense isn't the only concern. Lander's always been projected as a defensive specialist, but he's pretty much always struggled on the dot. Over the last two seasons, Lander's put up a faceoff percentage of 47.5% in 1489 draws (this season. It's not terrible, and players do tend to get better with time, but "good on faceoffs" is a rather essential part of the job description for a defensive center in the NHL. Other useful skills in that regard are size, skating, neither of which Lander has in spades. The Oilers list him at 6'0'' and 194 lbs., and while that's not small, it's not big either, especially for someone who's eventual goal is to be tasked to defend the best of the best in the NHL. In terms of skating, Lander himself has identified it as an area to work on, and it was one of the few things that Bruce noted needs work after watching him closely in the World Juniors.
Despite all that, I have Lander listed as eighth on my list, which is essentially taking a rosy view on all of the things listed above. I think it's great that Lander's moving forward offensively (already one of the top eighty point-scoring seasons in the SEL for a teenager, and there's still time for it get better), great that he's taken on such an important role on his team, and great that he's seen as a leader by his peers. I think he'll get better on faceoffs, overcome the speed concerns, and that his competitiveness will overshadow his stature. I think he'll play in the NHL.