In some ways, it is a little hard to believe that it has been almost five years since the Edmonton Oilers drafted Anton Lander 40th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft. I still remember that draft like it was yesterday. The Oilers selected two Swedish friends with their first two selections and looked to be on their way to an outstanding draft. They then made three consecutive picks that made me want to hurl myself face first into a brick wall because it would be decidedly less painful than watching what they were putting me through as a fan. The draft concluded with the team making two remarkably reasonable bets with their late-round picks, which a part of me thinks is their way of trolling fans saying "See, we could be smart if we wanted to be". (You can check out the draft list here).
On the other hand, when you think about all that has happened since that summer, it feels like an eternity has gone by since those days back before the run of ineptitude really kicked into high gear with the 30, 30, 29, 24, 29 hellfire Oiler fans have endured in the years since.
Throughout that entire period, Anton Lander has been on a long and winding road towards trying to find a full-time job in the NHL. His development has been mis-managed and course corrected, he's shown flashes of the player the Oilers want him to be and lengthy periods of play that made it seem like he'll never be a regular contributor for the Oilers.
Over the last few months though, just as he was about to run out of time, something seems to have clicked, and Lander's game took a bit step forward.
Honestly, if you follow the "Oilogosphere", you've probably read about the emergence of Lander's game in Oklahoma City this season. In fact, Top 25 Under 25 panelist and all around blogging superstar Jonathan Willis has basically done all of my work for me here, here and here.
For those not inclined to click on those links (you really should, particularly that first one) let me summarize things for you. After splitting time between the AHL and NHL in each of his first two seasons in North America (when he didn't belong anywhere near Edmonton), Lander had not produced offensively in the AHL at anything above a 0.43 ppg pace and had basically produced nothing in his stints in Edmonton (7 pts. in 67 games over two seasons).
This year, Lander was entering into the final year of his ELC. (Quick side note...there is a story to be written here about the team benefiting from waiting until his draft +2 season to sign Lander to his ELC so that it is just expiring now, as opposed to doing so early with Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton, therefore squeezing their development window by a year...end sidenote.) More importantly than that, this will be Lander's final year before he becomes eligible for waivers, meaning in all likelihood, the team has to make a decision by the end of this year as to whether or not they see him in their long-term plans. Lander has had a few call-ups to the big roster to fill-in for injury problems, but for the most part, this has been Lander's most extended stay in OKC during his time as a pro. He was named the Captain of the Barons this year and has emerged as the team's unquestionable leader.
Despite spending 12 games in Edmonton earlier in the season, Lander leads the team offensively with 17g-27a-44p in only 41 games. Thanks to the tremendous work of Jonathan Willis, as well as our friends Neal Livingston (of Tendthefarm.com) and Patricia Teter (@artful_puck) we know that Lander is also playing against the toughest possible competition and has a key role on special teams, particularly with the penalty kill, which is a skill the Oilers would be looking for from him in an eventual recall to the big club.
It may have happened a little slower than all involved were hoping for, but Anton Lander has done everything that can be asked of him at the AHL level, short of maybe continuing this level of performance over a longer period of time.
However, given that the Oilers are playing out the string with the likes of pending UFA Ryan Jones, and sub-par performers like Jesse Joensuu and Luke Gazdic in the line-up, not to mention that they have career-winger Ryan Smyth holding down the team's 4th line centre role at the moment, there doesn't really seem to be much reason for them not to call Lander up to the big club for the remainder of the season to see if he should be penciled in as the team's 4th line centre going forward.
The one argument against recalling him that merits consideration is that bringing him up decreases the chances of the Barons making the playoffs, which would be valuable experience for Lander and the rest of the team's young prospects, so it will remain to be seen what the franchise's priorities are over the next few months.
Regardless of where Lander plays the rest of this season, A couple of things are becoming pretty clear:
1. Lander is now more ready for the challenges of the NHL game than at any point in his previous stints with the Oilers.
2. It is exceedingly unlikely that a better than 1.00 ppg 22 year old two-way centre in the AHL is likely to clear waivers next season, so the time for a decision on Lander's place in the organization has come.
3. Lander is likely to get his NHL shot next season if not sooner, whether that be in Edmonton or elsewhere.
Personally, I'm happy for the kid that he seems to have figured it out. I believe he can be an effective role player in Edmonton and having him mentor behind a damn superhero of a shut-down centre in Boyd Gordon for the next couple of seasons sounds like a great next step for him. Here's hoping Lander can be signed to a value deal over the summer and that he outplays his contract over the next couple of seasons for the Oilers.