The points haven’t come yet for Los Angeles Kings rookie Tanner Pearson, but if he keeps up his recent play, the left winger could solidify his spot on a Western Conference contender.
In his first stint with the club, the 21-year-old appeared flustered by the tempo of the professional game, continually lagging one step behind.
Since the Olympic break, however, Pearson has honed in on his most striking attribute: raw speed. Pairing it with impressive tenacity, the rookie is performing with supreme confidence at the moment, flying up and down the ice to torment the opposition.
Despite a meager total of two points in 17 contests to this point in the season, his latest call-up has yielded such positive results that he landed on the second line alongside Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli against Florida on Saturday. In spite of subpar outings by his linemates, he was one of the best forwards on the ice.
Though the Panthers aren’t a playoff squad, Pearson nonetheless displayed game-breaking acceleration and a tireless hunger for the puck.
Early in the third period, he stopped on a dime behind Florida’s net, losing two defenders before feeding Carter in the slot with a cagey pass.
While the play unfortunately didn’t lead to a goal, it demonstrated the considerable upside of Pearson’s game.
Beyond the eye test, advanced metrics back up his surge in play over the past couple of weeks.
In his nine games prior to the Olympics, Pearson’s individual Corsi percentage stood at 47.3. In his eight games since then, his percentage has leapt to 63.3. The dramatic turn has shifted his line’s stance from weathering the storm to unleashing it upon the opposition in a matter of weeks.
Possession was among his most glaring weaknesses early in the year—especially on a Kings team that leads the league in Corsi percentage. Now it’s become an unequivocal strength.
A speed demon who can own that much of the puck is quite rare. Pearson also displays solid hockey sense, understanding when to conserve energy and when to blast into full gear.
This was made plainly obvious on his second career goal, screaming up-ice against Phoenix on March 17 after recovering a loose puck.
Many players would have slowed down in this situation to survey the landscape. Not Pearson. He kept on chugging in a straight line and rocketed a wrister by Mike Smith before the Coyotes could sort out their defensive posture.
With all that said, Pearson's still in his first year, and there’s room for improvement. He gets lost at times in defensive coverage and could play a heavier game down low.
On the whole, consistency should be the No. 1 priority. He’s shown himself capable of contributing in a major way. The key for Pearson will be to deliver on a nightly basis. If he can capitalize on his speed and battle harder in the trenches every game, he may finally supply the Kings with their answer at second-line left wing.
He’s penciled in there right now on paper but is only receiving a little under 11 minutes of ice time per contest. Shoring up his defensive game would gain the trust of head coach Darryl Sutter.
Pearson’s emergence as a legitimate NHL forward isn’t only promising in the long term, though.
Following Mike Richards’ recent demotion to the “fourth line”—he saw 14:42 and 16:16 of ice time in his two games in that spot while averaging a shade over 17 on the season—the Kings appear much, much deeper.
With Pearson as a viable left winger for Carter opposite Toffoli, L.A. now boasts four forward units that can threaten opponents.
Which line should Pearson play on going forward?
In all likelihood, the lines will change as the games grow more important. Richards should slot in on the third line at worst down the stretch and may return to Carter’s line after his wake-up call.
It’s also hard to envision Sutter sending out two youngsters in top-six roles when the games take on a do-or-die nature.
Nevertheless, Pearson’s recent surge in play offers the bench boss a ton of flexibility.
The Kings can now load up on the top unit with Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Carter or reunite Richards and Carter without feeling as though they’ve depleted their bottom-six talent.
There’s greater balance to the forward corps. No matter how Sutter assembles his lines, he will find healthy doses of pace, skill and two-way ability distributed throughout.
L.A. is faster and more explosive than it’s been in years.
The new blood is providing the club with a jolt of energy akin to what Dwight King and Jordan Nolan brought as freshmen in 2012 on the road to the franchise’s first and only championship.
Pearson may not be lighting the world on fire—and there's a chance he never will—but the sea change in his play could prove critical to the Kings’ Stanley Cup aspirations this season and beyond.