VIDEO: Includes exclusive video of the May 19 media interview with Tanner Pearson.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — After watching young left wing prospect Tanner Pearson make his National Hockey League debut on May 18 against the San Jose Sharks in a second round playoff game is quite the surprise. After all, it was not all that long ago that his future in hockey was rather murky, and that’s putting it mildly.
Indeed, even though he became eligible for the NHL Draft in 2010, he went undrafted for two years before the Los Angeles Kings selected him in the first round (30th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft.
In fact, Pearson’s career in Canadian junior hockey did not have an auspicious start, as the vast majority of legitimate NHL prospects coming out of Canada go right to major junior hockey at 16 years of age. Although Pearson was selected by the Barrie Colts in the 2008 Ontario Hockey League Priority Draft, the fourth round (266th overall) selection saw the writing on the wall.
Indeed, as a late round draft choice, Pearson was on the bubble just to make the Colts roster, and he knew that unless he improved his game, he stood a good chance of never making it to the OHL. As such, he decided to play for the Waterloo Siskins of the Greater Ontario Hockey League (a Junior B league), during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. He then made the jump to major juniors, playing two seasons with the Colts.
A few weeks after being selected by the Kings in the 2012 draft, Pearson explained his situation.
“I don’t think I was ready [to play in Canadian major junior hockey], especially in the first year, when I was [selected in the] OHL [draft],” said Pearson. “I was pretty small, and I wasn’t the greatest skater. The following year [the second year he was eligible to play in major junior], Barrie had a great team, so it was really, really hard to make that team.”
“I could’ve stayed around as the 13th forward, but I didn’t want to do that, so I went back to Junior [B] to develop a bit more,” added Pearson. “Obviously, it helped me out.”
It certainly did, as he scored 15 goals and added 27 assists for 42 points in 66 regular season games for the Colts in 2010-11.
Still, Pearson was not impressive enough to catch the eyes of NHL scouts.
“I was playing Junior B my first two years, so I knew I wasn’t going to be drafted then,” Pearson noted. “[After the 2010-11 season], I wasn’t expecting to be drafted, either. Maybe a camp invite, but that never rolled around.”
A breakout season in 2011-12 finally attracted the attention of NHL scouts. In 60 regular season games, Pearson scored 37 goals and added 54 assists for 91 points before a broken right fibula ended his season.
Also helping Pearson garner the attention he needed was a solid performance at the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship, where he scored a goal and tallied five assists in six games, leading Canada to the bronze medal, and becoming the first junior player since Danny Syvret in 2005 to represent Canada after being passed over in the NHL Draft.
Pearson, 20, began the 2012-13 season with the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, However, primarily due to the influx of NHL players in the AHL due to the lockout, Pearson did not get much ice time early on.
But when the opportunity came, the 6-0, 198-pound native of Kitchener, Ontario made the most of it.
“He didn’t play a lot in the beginning, but somebody wasn’t doing a very good job in front of the net, so on a whim, I told him to go play the net on the power play,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “I remember—it happened in the same game. [Defenseman] David Kolomatis has a great release from the blue line. He fed a couple of wrist shots towards the net, and Tanner tipped them both in the net. From that point forward, we made him a net front guy.”
Pearson, who was signed to a three-year, entry-level contract on August 3, 2012, really hit his stride when he was put on a line with Kings forward prospects Linden Vey and Tyler Toffoli, who is now with the Kings.
That line lit up the AHL, and even though Toffoli was the big scorer on that line, Pearson was no slouch.
“He’s a real skilled player, and he’s got a great shot,” said Vey. “He’s a guy who’s not afraid to go to the net and mix it up. He brings a lot to our team. He’s a strong guy, he’s got a scoring touch, and he’s willing to go to the net. Especially from the start of the year, he’s improved a lot. He’s finding things out, like everybody else, but he’s improved, and he’s definitely a great player for us.”
By season’s end, Pearson’s 19 goals and 28 assists for 47 points, with a +17 plus/minus rating and 14 penalty minutes, helped the Monarchs qualify for the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
But the Monarchs had to face one of the veteran teams in the league, the Springfield Falcons, in the first round, and were eliminated in the best-of-five series, 3-1.
In those four games, Pearson recorded one assist, a -2 plus/minus rating, and four penalty minutes—not eye-opening numbers, to be sure. But his regular season performance apparently spoke volumes.
“The kid we got [with the 30th overall pick in the 2012 draft—Pearson] has really done well, so we actually lucked out there,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “To get Pearson with the 30th pick, he’s got a good chance.”
Evidence suggests that Pearson’s chances may be, at least, slightly better than “good.”
Most young prospects get to make their NHL debut during the regular season. But Pearson apparently impressed Kings head coach Darryl Sutter enough to put him in the lineup in Game 3 of the 2013 Western Conference Semifinals against the Sharks.
Talk about pressure for a young prospect. But he had little time to feel it, since he was not told he would be playing until the very last moment.
“Up until the start of the game, I actually didn’t know, myself,” he said.
In fact, Pearson was shocked when he learned that he would be making his NHL debut that night.
“It was a big [surprise],” said Pearson. “I came up here, [and] thought I was just going to be with the Black Aces, with the guys from Manchester.”
“The development guys told me that I was going to start practicing with [the Kings],” added Pearson. “A few things happened that gave me an opening. We’ll see where it goes from here.”
Like most young players making their NHL debut, Pearson had a rush of emotions and thoughts flying through his body and mind. But he managed to calm himself.
“I came back to reality when I first stepped onto the ice, to start the first [period], with all the fans going crazy,” he said. “It was pretty loud in that building, but it was fun to be a part of.”
When young players move up to higher levels in the game, they often talk about how the players are bigger, stronger, faster and better, and that the game is faster.
Pearson was no different.
“It was kind of an adjustment [during] the first ten minutes [of the game],” he noted. “But as the game went on, I got more used to it.”
“You’re playing with the best players in the world, so they’re going to make the best plays,” he added. “You’ve got to be so much more aware of what’s going on, and think a lot quicker. Everyone’s that much faster up [here], and you’ve got be to aware of them all the time.”
“Everything is that much better. It’s a whole different world. Everyone is so much faster, so much stronger. You’ve got to be on your toes all the time.”
But the debut did not turn out the way he hoped. Not only did the Kings lose the game, 2-1 in overtime, but Pearson also saw very limited ice time—just nine even strength shifts, good for five minutes, 44 seconds of ice time.
“I just tried to go out there, and play my game, trying to be a strong player,” said Pearson. “Nothing went my way, or the team’s way [last night], so we’ll try to bounce back.”
Despite that, Sutter indicated that Pearson put in a good showing in his first NHL game.
“I thought he was fine,” said Sutter. “We were trying to get a few more minutes out of him than we got out of who we had in [that spot on the fourth line] before. But as the game worked out, because of the way the third period was with penalties and so forth, we didn’t use him. But on the shifts he got, he played fine.”
Sutter shrugged off questions about the significance of Pearson making his NHL debut.
“I said it after the game, I don’t know why it’s a big deal,” said Sutter. “He’s played in bigger games than that. He represented his country at the World Juniors last year, and he was a significant part of it, so I don’t think last night’s game would be any bigger for him than those.”
Indeed, Pearson mentioned that the game reminded him of his time with Team Canada.
“It kind of reminded me of playing in the World Juniors on Team Canada, in Canada, but on the opposite side of the ice,” he said.
Don’t let Sutter’s comments fool you, however. His comments are likely intended to make sure his young charge is focused on the task at hand. Sutter knows all too well that it is a big deal, especially for the player in question, one who had a far more uncertain future in the game compared to a lot of prospects coming out of major junior hockey in Canada.
“To see it happen so quick, it’s really awesome,” Pearson beamed. “To have my first game as a playoff game, it shows you what the league is all about, and what you compete for.”
“If someone told me three years ago that I would be doing this today, I probably would’ve shook my head and laughed. But honestly, I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat.”
Frozen Royalty Video via FrozenRoyaltyNHL on YouTube – Exclusive video of media interview with Tanner Pearson, May 19, 2013
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