EL SEGUNDO, CA — Despite getting off to a blistering hot start to the 2014-15 National Hockey League season, it appears that rookie left wing Tanner Pearson is headed for a seat in the press box when the Los Angeles Kings host the Carolina Hurricanes on November 20, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The reason: after scoring seven goals and adding two assists for nine points, with a +9 plus/minus rating and two penalty minutes in the first eight games of the season, Pearson has recorded just one assist, with a +2 plus/minus rating and six penalty minutes in the Kings’ last eleven games.
“Things really went my way to start off, and then, lately, it’s not happening,” said Pearson. “I just have to keep on working hard, and things will, eventually, start going your way again.”
What stood out so much in Pearson’s game at the start of the season, not to mention the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, was not just his speed and scoring touch. Indeed, his ability to get to loose pucks, win battles for them along the boards and then find the open man, either center Jeff Carter or right wing Tyler Toffoli, made him that much more effective—he was, for all intents and purposes, the glue that made the “That 70’s Line” work so well.
Over the past eleven games, that part of his game has not been there. But head coach Darryl Sutter went a step further.
“I think his whole game has to come back again, in terms of the determination and the whole three-zone thing,” he said. “The goals are the end result of a lot of work.”
If you think that opposing defenses keying on him is a factor, whether that might be true or not, Sutter was not about to give his young charge that excuse.
Indeed, when asked how much opposing defenses adjusting to Pearson has to do with his drop-off, Sutter said, emphatically, “None. It’s not that. Zero.”
During practice, Pearson skated with Carter and Toffoli, as has usually been the case to this point in the season. However, also wearing a yellow practice jersey was left wing Dwight King—four players on a line has generally been a strong indication that the coaching staff is planning on making a lineup change that affects that line, and if you put two and two together, it seems likely that Pearson will be a healthy scratch against Carolina.
Sutter’s comments after practice about the forwards making plays along the boards also lent credence to that conclusion, even though he did not single out Pearson.
“I think it’s an issue with a lot of our forwards, in terms of making plays on the boards.” he explained. “It’s not backchecking. I think that our guys—there’s no question about work or anything like that, or knowing your responsibilities, but there are times during the game where you spend time in your zone where you could’ve made a play on the wall that requires you to get hit or [take] some contact or traffic. It’s an area that especially young players have to work at. This is a tough league.”
“Hey, we’ve got 14 forwards,” he elaborated. “[If] guys have got to sit out to watch, maybe analyze their own game, then that’s what we’re doing. We’ve already done it and we’ll do it again tomorrow, we’ll do it again every game. We have 14 forwards. Play the right way.”
With a shortage on their blue line, Sutter’s rope is shorter than it might usually be at this time of the season.
“The way the schedule is, and again, I hate to beat on it, but only having six defensemen, up front, we have to play a hell of a lot better,” he stressed. “We can’t have average players, and again, with the schedule, playing every other day or back-to-backs, you need a lot more when you ask about guys that are struggling offensively, it’s the whole package part of it for those guys.”
“That’s why we’re moving guys around, that’s why guys are going in and out of the lineup,” he added. “We’re trying to win a hockey game, so I look at tomorrow as the last game of the season for us. We’ll put the lineup in that we think has the best chance to play well against Carolina.”
For his part, even if Pearson winds up as a healthy scratch for the game against the Hurricanes, perhaps the message has already been received.
“I don’t think [the coaches] have to tell me much,” he said. “I think I know, myself, what I need to improve on. I think, step-by-step, it’s slowly starting to get back where it was.”
“It’s just wall play and battles,” he added. “I think I’m a strong guy on the puck. If I’m losing battles, I’m not going to be playing.”
“You just keep on focusing, keep battling hard and try not to lose those battles.”
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So if King moves up to 2nd line, couldn’t it be possible Pearson moves down to the third replacing King, instead of Nolan or Andreoff being in the lineup and Pearson sitting?
Sure. But that would defeat the purpose.