It's been tough watching Anton Lander struggle this season. After notching 11 points at even-strength in 38 games last season, plus 10 more points on the powerplay, it appeared that the young prospect was finally turning a corner in his NHL career. Unfortunately for him, this season has been a disaster. He's definitely not playing at the level he was at under Todd Nelson and, to my eye, hasn't been involved in as many offensive zone plays. I thought he had more of a presence in front of the net last season and looked a lot more assertive with and without the puck. Diving into the numbers from War on Ice, we see that he isn't generating as many shots or scoring chances compared to last season, and hasn't had a positive impact on team possession. What should keep him on the roster is his very manageable contract, his ability to play center and win draws, and his ability to draw penalties (where he ranks 5th in the league in penalty differential).
As bad as Lander has struggled, Mark Letestu hasn't been that much better. He has seen his ice time increase significantly with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out of the lineup, yet he only has six points at even-strength all season. His point production per 60 minutes is a paltry 0.61, ahead of only Lander and Luke Gazdic among Oiler forwards this season (Appendix A).
Now Letestu's main success this season has been on the powerplay where he has one goal and six assists, two of which were primary assists. Producing on the powerplay is obviously great, but I tend to value a player's even-strength performance much, much higher than special teams as it's tougher to score in this situation, and it's where most of the game is played. It's also been found that a team's goal-differential at even-strength has a higher correlation to where a team finishes in the standings, compared to special teams success.
When comparing Lander to Letestu, and since they play the same position and receive similar deployment, we can take it one step further and see how much better or worse the team does in terms of shot attempts, scoring chances and goals with them on the ice at even-strength. Spoiler: it isn't pretty.
Here we see that both players have a negative impact on their team when it comes to the metrics listed above. I was somewhat surprised that Lander and Letestu were this close in terms of relative numbers and that they both ranked near the bottom of the entire team. The other thing to consider with Letestu is that he's been in steady decline for a few seasons now when it comes to overall point production, and when it comes to the rel stats covering shot attempts for, scoring chances for and goals for (Appendix B).
It's worth noting that Lander has a PDO of 94.6, which is slightly lower than Letestu's, with goalies having a worse save percentage when Lander is on the ice. Lander's most common linemates this season have been Lauri Korpikoski and Iiro Pakarinen. Letestu's most common linemates have been Matt Hendricks and Lauri Korpikoski, but he's been paired with Zack Kassian for the most part since late December.
Now this isn't to say that Letestu should be benched in favor of Lander, or that Lander isn't getting a fair shake. My point here is that while Lander has struggled and has deservedly received a lot of criticism for his poor play, we can't let him be the only fall guy. I do get the sense that players like Letestu, and Gryba and Korpikoski who were brought in by Chairelli are going to get a lot more rope compared to players brought in by previous regimes. But if one player is being skewered by fans and media for his poor play, and getting benched for it, it shouldn't overshadow the undetected, dreadful play of others.
Going forward, I would like to see Letestu continue playing with Kassian on the third line, as they currently hold a 52% Corsi For when they're on the ice together. Lander should ideally slot in the fourth line center spot, and have Hendricks and Pakarinen as wingers, both of whom have had success with Lander in the past. That would of course leave Korpikoski and his $2.5 million salary (which is on the books for another year, I might add) in the pressbox, which might not be a bad idea considering the negative impact he's had on his linemates for pretty much his entire NHL career.
Appendix A: Edmonton Oilers Forwards (>150 mins played) - 2015/16 (War on Ice)
Appendix B: History of Mark Letestu (Even-strength)