There were a few more reporters than Tanner Pearson was accustomed to speaking with after he stepped off the ice following the team’s morning skate in San Jose on May 18.
He fulfilled his media duty, returned to the hotel for the obligatory pre-game nap, and rode the bus back to the arena as he had done so many times throughout his hockey career.
Still, there were naturally some butterflies that accompanied an NHL debut in the thick of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“He was a nervous wreck,” Darryl Sutter recalled of the rookie left wing.
The end result was a 2-1 overtime loss to the Sharks in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Pearson logged five minutes and 44 seconds of ice time during the 61 minutes and 29 seconds of play that night. A statistical account of his nine shifts that night depicted a string of zeroes alongside his name.
“I may have gotten in a hit, just trying to get into the game early,” he recalled of his efforts. “But other than that, I don’t remember much.”
The leap from junior to professional hockey is a challenging one for a 20-year-old, and by all accounts, Pearson was able to refine and develop aspects of his game while continuing to develop his scoring knack in the American Hockey League last season. In the calendar year of 2013, the 6-foot, 198-pound forward selected with the final pick of the first round of the 2012 draft only once went more than three days without scoring a regular season goal and finished with 19 goals and 47 points in 64 games with the Manchester Monarchs despite having his season disrupted for nearly a month by a February shoulder injury that placed him on the trainer’s table and in doctor’s offices instead of flying down the wings at Verizon Wireless Arena.
Of course, his multifaceted line that included the playmaking smarts of Linden Vey and Tyler Toffoli’s scoring feel helped raise the collective bar.
“Those three personalities hit it off right off the top, and I think that his confidence just started to grow leaps and bounds,” Monarchs coach Mark Morris said. “I think he’s developed a confidence with the puck, and those guys read off one another extremely well. Having success as a group sometimes really is the key to giving you that momentum to continue to grow in the future.”
His 200-foot efforts have continued to develop in professional hockey, and though there are many elements of his game that indicate that the Kings are grooming a burgeoning power forward, there’s still that deft scoring touch that Pearson is beginning to display on a more advanced stage. He scored twice in a 6-1 win over Anaheim Ducks rookies at the Honda Center two Saturdays ago and opened the scoring in Sunday’s 4-2 split squad loss in Phoenix with a top-shelf laser beam off a partial breakaway that led to veteran Coyotes goalie Mike Smith pulling the puck out of the net just 51 seconds into his 2013 preseason debut.
“I talked to Billy Ranford before the game on where to shoot, and he gave me a couple pointers,” Pearson said. “The glove side was open, so I just tried to snap it away as quick as I could, and luckily it went in.”
That intuitiveness and the process of learning what it takes to become a professional continues to fit within general manager Dean Lombardi’s developmental process of making sure a young player continues to trend upwards through the team’s developmental process.
“Like I always say at this stage, you’re just looking for him to be better than he was in April, to be better than he was in June, and that’s where he is now,” Lombardi said. “He just keeps getting better, and that’s what all you’re looking for. His skating’s improved. You can see his conditioning’s improved. He’s got some natural gifts that as he keeps getting better in those smaller areas, the way he can snap a puck, He’s actually pretty good along the boards and things that’ll improve when he gets stronger. You look at from his draft year to where he is now, it’s like night and day, but that’s generally how the learning curve goes, right? It spikes early, and then it flattens, and then it hopefully keeps going up. But he’s been steadily up since the day of his draft.”
It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to reveal that the Kings are looking for players to step up and earn spots along the left side of the lineup. It’s too early to fill in an evaluating adjective alongside Pearson’s name – he has played in a grand total of one preseason game – but the former Barrie Colt who maintained a point-a-game pace during the 2012 World Junior Championship and was one of three players selected in the first round of the 2012 draft to have already appeared in an NHL playoff game (Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk and Washington’s Tom Wilson are the others) appears to be right in the middle of engineering an intriguing preseason while balanced by the team’s patient process of developing habits in young players that translate well to the National Hockey League.
“I think you guys know how I feel about the importance of the minor leagues and paying your dues and things. Not only paying your dues – that sounds like punishment – but you just can’t forget that it’s a big jump, and you want to make sure you take advantage of putting that base in place that in the long run will serve him well. We’ve talked about that for seven years now, about if you’re able to do it that way, it’s so beneficial. We’re at that stage now,” Lombardi said.
“Before we maybe had to rush kids because we weren’t that good a team. But you always go back to what Detroit does with Helm and Ericsson and…Abdelkader, I mean, so many of those guys. It’s because they were brought along the right way.”
Pearson is now at the position where he’s competing for a role with the same players he skated on a line with in Manchester. And though he hasn’t produced the handful of points that Tyler Toffoli has in a small sample size when games actually counted, he does have the benefit of trying to earn a spot at a position where the Kings are looking to find more production.
“Hey, he’s showed it in the preseason so far, in the rookie camp. And then this – he can score at this level, so we’re just going to continue to play him and see if he can,” Sutter said.
“[Phoenix] played a lot of their top end lineup, and we had more of our role players and then tried to put in some skill from the American League. Tanner’s sort of in between that, right? He’s trying to play a higher role on our team, and he’s the high end of the American League team, so that’s why he stood out. He had a good game, and hopefully he can build on it.”
The coach shared his encouragement with Pearson, who will look to continue to build upon his solid base throughout the remainder of the 2013 preseason, which continues tonight in Anaheim.
“Darryl just said I had a good game, so I’ll take that and move on from there and work game by game from here on in,” he said.
From Gann Matsuda of Frozen Royalty: Tanner Pearson Is An Early Standout At LA Kings 2013 Training Camp