Anton Lander in his element: going for the puck, not going for goals.
I don't know what to think about Anton Lander.
I like good two-way centres, of course. I have the old-time hockey fan's fetish for a player who just makes life miserable for the other team, who doesn't get many points but earns his bones picking off passes, cutting out angles, making the middle of the ice a "no-go" zone, and winning faceoffs. I also believe that leadership, while difficult to define and even more difficult to quantify is a thing, and that by all accounts Anton Lander has it. Theoretically, I should love this kid to restraining-order levels.
But I don't. I don't hate him but I'm not convinced by him either. I mean, isn't a two-way forward supposed to go, y'know, two ways? While his offense had been improving it still wasn't inspiring (or, at least, not inspiring enough for me to rate Lander any higher than the mid-teens with the rest of the Oilers' good-but-not-great prospects).
Lander's last season in Sweden was fair offensively for his age and the team didn't give him much help. Hooray! With numbers like that surely he's moving up in the world. Yet I'm still not convinced that he hasn't taken a step forward and two steps back.
I'm not writing Anton Lander off. I'm not saying he won't have an NHL career, that I'm not looking forward to seeing how he does in Oklahoma City, or that I think we should forget about him and move on. I'm saying he's just another lower-mid-range prospect and ranking him eighth is way off the mark.
That's right, I said fourteenth. Well behind Curtis Hamilton, another two-way forward you may recall who had a good offensive season last year. I've always been one of the ranking pessimists on Lander: I had him twelfth last spring (again behind Hamilton) and nineteenth in the fall of 2010. The difference this time around is that Jonathan Willis, once my comrade in cynical arms, raised Lander from 14th last time around to 11th this time, while everybody else continues to put him in the top ten.
Maybe this is just a different assessment of our priorities. Lander has long been considered a "safe" player, somebody who may or may not be a key asset but is almost definitely going to be a quality NHL 4th-liner at minimum. A lot of his fans would say he's there already. I usually like safe picks but Lander seemed like a safe pick for an unimportant position: we might not have a mediocre role-playing centre? Oh nooooo.
Lander's booster club will refer to his most recent season as a "breakout" campaign. Having been barely a two-digit point scorer through his teenage years, Lander celebrated his twentieth birthday by putting in some offense with Timrå, scoring eleven goals and adding fifteen assists. 26 points doesn't sound like a lot but it was good for third in team scoring, behind long-time SM-liiga standout Kim Hirschovits and former New Jersey Devils scrub Ilkka Pikkarainen.
Last year, Timrå IK relied on Lander in a key role, which sounds like a good thing. Unfortunately, Timrå was a pretty sub-par hockey team. Despite featuring a variety of players you've heard of like Sebastian Erixson, Daniel Corso, and my boy Jamie Lundmark, the Red Eagles finished a miserable 17-25-9-4 and escaped the Elitserien relegation series by only two points.
While picking up his career-best offensive season, Lander also had his career-worst defensive season. He couldn't have been helped by his goaltending, which was sub-par, but it's hard to make excuses for Lander's team-worst -14. Other leading scorers on the Red Eagles like Hirschovits, Pikkarainen, Gabriel Karlsson, and Martin Roymark ranged from +4 to -3. The only other players worse than -10 were hapless defensemen Mattias Karlsson and Jesper Dahlroth. Lander, in short, blew his brains out. If Timrå IK was the Edmonton Oilers, Lander would have been Patrick O'Sullivan.
It's easy to imagine what happened. On a team with little scoring Lander was told "Anton, we're counting on you to go out and get some goals." And Anton, who is a good teammate by all accounts, said "okay", started cheating for offense, faced off against higher-quality opposition on a more important line, and got himself thoroughly run over for his trouble. For somebody we've always been told was a quality SEL player as a teenager, Lander's 2010-11 season was bad. If an NHLer was just over half a point per game but posted a +/- like that, we'd want to buy him out.
That's why I view Lander's season not merely as "not a step forward" but actually a step back. We all expected that he was a kid who was already playing responsible, useful hockey, but as soon as he got more responsibility he wasn't up for it.
Again, I'm not writing him off. He is still just twenty years old and waiting for his first season in Oklahoma City. If he goes back to the basics at which he's already proven so adept he'll probably have a useful year. I just didn't see much in the way of forward movement in the past twelve months.