Leadership is one of those nebulous and intangible concepts that gets bandied about in many different walks of life -- people seem to either be born with it or spend their entire lives getting the same two minute clip of William Wallace's speech in Braveheart shoved down their throats as an example of it. I'm sure leadership is a reasonably important quality... it comes in handy when deciding what movie you'll take a date to, or when needing the courage to ask the kid at the till in McDonald's whether or not pop refills are free. But the collective bias of our writers have shown just how important it is when rating our next prospect, Anton Lander.
Previous Rank: 12
By most respects, Anton Lander is just not a very impressive prospect. He's never really been much of a scorer in any league he's played in. He's not particularly large, or fast, or agile. He doesn't have a good shot, nor does he stickhandle the puck particularly well. I wouldn't say he forechecks and cycles better than the average player, or even has much of any physical aspect to his game at all. There isn't even any one play while watching him in the NHL or AHL that I can even remember, beyond the general recollection of him being in uniform and skating on the ice now and then.
But for some reason, I kind of like him -- I mean, don't you? There's a certain mystique to this prospect that I'm not sure has been even loosely approximated in the history of the Oilers' development system. And therein lies the importance of having the aforementioned 'leadership' tag... I can like this prospect purely because of what I've read and heard about him personally, and I've been able to formulate and maintain this opinion even in the face of what I've actually seen on the ice.
His teammates seem to think he's a good 'hockey player', regardless of whether the perception ever matches what they see on the ice. His coaches also seem to jump at any chance to advance his career, whether it's Tom Renney inexplicably keeping this prospect in the NHL for 56 long games last year, or Krueger's decision to make him the first AHL centre call-up this year. I think we can agree that the pattern of his professional usage suggests he'll be given every and any opportunity to carve out a non-trivial NHL career. However, people who are known as 'mature for their age' eventually need to become known as 'good for their age' to have a shot. Does he have one?
Firstly, he's quite young, still only 21 years old. He's only in his second year of North American play. Secondly, his supposed skillset almost perfectly matches what the Oilers will need in spades in the next few years. Horcoff will likely be bought out in the summer of 2014 for cap purposes, at which time Eric Belanger will be a UFA and 57 years old. The Oilers will need defensively-oriented centres by then, full stop.
It's my belief that Lander is being groomed by the organization to take over a full time roster spot starting in the fall of 2014 in the Oilers bottom 6. In order to get there, he'll be given fairly attainable milestones to achieve, such as holding down a 4th line role during call-ups and fitting in well on special teams. I expect next season he'll play more NHL games than AHL games, especially because he's the de facto first forward call-up option on the Barons right now.
His underlying numbers did seem to be improving, albeit in a short 4-game NHL stint before being injured this year. He was 5th best out of 6 regular penalty killing forwards last year in preventing goals -- this year, he hadn't given up a goal in almost 10 minutes of play while short-handed, and looked very comfortable while doing it. Last year, his RelCorsi was 2nd last among Oilers forwards playing over 40 games (in front of Petrell) even though he was playing the 2nd easiest competition. This year, the only players with a better even strength RelCorsi than Lander (as of this writing) are Hall, Eberle, and Nugent-Hopkins, and he's doing it against ~3rd line competition.
I could give you his admittedly embarrassing AHL stats (15 points and -7 in 53 games played), but this is one of those rare players whose value isn't going to be judged by numbers. This kid has somehow figured out the hockey equivalent of 'The Secret'.
He seems to have the 'Rem Murray' quality of being well-liked by most everyone, even though he projects to be a surefire 'low-event' type of player and would likely fail being anything more than a bottom six role player. In ranking him 12th, I believe the situation he finds himself in gives him the 12th likeliest shot at having an NHL career. I honestly can't believe this player ended up within a couple of ranking spots of players that a) are, at best, tracking behind the junior career of Vyacheslav Trukhno, or b) sustained an injury that would have killed someone pre-1910.
He captained two successive Swedish World Junior teams that included such players as Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Adam Larsson, Tim Erixon, David Rundblad, Gabriel Landeskog, and his Timra/Oilers teammate Magnus Paajarvi. The fact that he was considered a leader of such players is very impressive, and only a heartless curmudgeon would think otherwise.
He was made an assistant captain of his SEL team Timra as an *eighteen* year old. He would have likely captained Timra as a *twenty* year old if he had stayed in Sweden last season. Instead, he was rushed to the NHL in a classic 'Oilers blunder', but not before his home fans in Sweden feted him to a hero's sendoff.
As statistical analysts of the game, I fear sometimes we bloggers are too blinded by numbers without giving qualitative factors their due -- which is why I wanted to make this profile qualitative in nature. Anton Lander is a player whose value is not approximated in goals, or hits, or shots. If you read his interviews, he exudes a quiet but firm confidence in his abilities as a player and in his team's righteousness. He actually reminds me a lot of former Oiler captain Jason Smith in that regard -- you just can't find anything but respect for him, from both teammates and the opposition. And that is worth something, regardless of what his numbers say about it.
He has yet to connect on this level with Oiler fans -- getting killed on the 4th line last year with players like Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, and Lennert Petrell doesn't really leave much room for endearment. But it doesn't take much for that to turn around in a hurry. Before being injured, he was centering a surprisingly effective 'Nordic Line' with Magnus Paajarvi and Teemu Hartikainen that was winning the possession battle. We haven't hit oil yet, but the core samples are encouraging. If they can play like that while popping in a few goals, people will begin to take notice.
Oilers fans usually prefer cheddar to Camembert. Anton Lander is definitely an acquired taste. Let's see if he can work his way onto our palette.