How stability and versatility helped Tanner Pearson to a career season in Vancouver

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It’s hard to imagine that a little over a year ago, Tanner Pearson was on his third team in a single season. It’s hard to imagine that a year ago was only a year ago right now, but that’s not the point.

The deal that brought Pearson from the Penguins in exchange for Erik Gudbranson is easily one of Jim Benning’s best trades since taking the reins as Canucks’ general manager in 2014. The Kitchener, Ontario native might still be on the south side of 30 years old, but his experience is a big part of why management took a chance on him during last year’s trade deadline.

As one of just three Canucks with a Stanley Cup ring, he’s gotten a first hand lesson in the work it takes to win a championship. Pearson was an integral part of the Los Angeles Kings’ run in 2014 while playing on the lethal “That ‘70s Line” with Jeff Carter and noted best friend Tyler Toffoli, posting 12 points in 24 playoff games.

More importantly, the Canucks felt that given his record as a regular 40-point scorer, Pearson had the know-how and work ethic to find that form again. But he’s provided far more for his Vancouver than just an added scoring threat. He’s finally brought some stability to Travis Green’s second line and, more specifically, a true complementary winger for Bo Horvat.

Highs and Bos

Not many young players are dropped into as perfect a situation as Pearson was when he was drafted 30th overall by the defending champion Kings in 2012. By the time Los Angeles won their second Cup in 2014 the then 21 year-old had quickly cemented himself as a core member of the team’s top six, hitting his scoring peak of 44 points in 2016-17.

But by 2018-19, Pearson had hit a sudden wall. Through 17 games with the Kings he mustered just one point before the team dealt him to the Penguins in mid-November. Pearson did find better success in Pittsburgh but his move to Vancouver was where he fully rediscovered his scoring touch, posting 12 points in 19 games to finish off the season.

Pearson was an instant upgrade for the team’s left wing, and showed early signs of chemistry when he was paired up with Bo Horvat. The arrival of J.T. Miller during the 2019 offseason then solidified Pearson’s role as Horvat’s left-hand man, crossing off a need that had been at the top of the Canucks’ to-do list since Horvat’s rookie season in 2014-15.

With the Canucks in transition nearly every winger to pass through the team’s locker room in the last five seasons spent some time on Horvat’s wing, from potential long term fixes like Sven Baertschi to the one stint wonders. Remember Jussi Jokinen?

So much roster shuffling meant Horvat never had optimal time to develop chemistry with his linemates. This year Pearson became just the third Canuck forward to play more than half of a season at Horvat’s side, being involved in 67.3 percent of the captain’s even strength ice time.

Pearson’s presence coupled with his offensive awareness freed up Horvat more regularly on the attack, as opponents were forced to divide up their defensive strategy to cover multiple scoring threats. One of Pearson’s best skills is his ability to draw in multiple defenders with the puck before dishing it off to an open trailing forward, a technique that pays off regardless of who he’s lined up with. Just ask Tyler Graovac.

ABC (Always Be Closing)

If someone had told me back in September that Loui Eriksson’s 13 points would be some of the most crucial contributions in the Canucks season, I’d have asked them what type of crazy pills they’re taking. But here we are, looking back to a season where the late game heroics of Pearson, Horvat and their unlikely linemate made them folk heroes in Vancouver.

It started in a December 23 matchup against the Edmonton Oilers, when the second line was able to shut down the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to preserve a 3-2 lead. With less than a minute to go, Pearson was able to seal off Oscar Klefbom from the puck and push it over to a streaking Alex Edler, which led to an Eriksson empty netter.

By the season’s pause, the newly minted “Closers Line” had combined for seven empty net goals and became Travis Green’s go-to shutdown line when the team was holding a late lead. According to Evolving-Hockey, the line finished with an Expected Goals Against per/60 of 2.42, putting them fourth among Canucks lines that played more than 120 minutes.

What makes that statistic so impressive is the quality of the opponents they’re facing. Pearson skills as a two-way forward generally earned them matchups against the opponent’s top lines. Being able to play a pivotal role in shutting down a team’s first line in the defensive end then score on them at the other is a rare team component.

Tools of the Trade

Pearson may not be a star for the Canucks like Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, but he has a “jack of all trades” aspect to his game that fills a lot of roles for Travis Green. He’s played an integral role on Vancouver’s second power play unit and penalty kill, finishing fifth in average ice time among Canucks forwards who played 20 games or more.

In the offensive zone Pearson provides a net front presence that the team’s wanted for ages. According to IcyStats, 63 percent of Pearson’s goals either come from the lower slot or around the crease, a number of which involve him simply going to the front of the net and looking for a deflection, like on this goal against the Sharks.

His skill and value in so many parts of the Canucks lineup helped the 27 year-old to a career season in 2019-20, scoring 45 points in the shortened 69 game schedule. Of the many questions that will linger if the season doesn’t return, how much higher Pearson’s point total would’ve finished at is one of the more fascinating ones. And that’s without factoring in the deal that brought his “best friend” to Vancouver.

When the Canucks traded for Tyler Toffoli before this year’s trade deadline, the reasoning was three-fold; Toffoli gave the Canucks a real top six for the first time in years, had experience playing alongside Pearson in Los Angeles and would be part of Vancouver’s stretch run to the playoffs.

Of course, only one of those expectations came to fruition. Toffoli only played ten games for the Canucks before the season went on pause, and thanks to a Brock Boeser injury Pearson was never officially reunited with his Kings teammate. Instead Toffoli was placed in Boeser’s spot alongside Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller in an effort to minimize the loss on Vancouver’s top scoring line.

Depending on how/if the NHL handles their return it’s very possible that the free agent Toffoli won’t be a Canuck the next time the team hits the ice, but Pearson will be. Once the league’s calendar officially flips he’ll have one more year left on the contract he signed with the Kings in 2017.

With so much of the Canucks’ future hanging in the balance of next season, the stability that Pearson has found and provided to a young Vancouver lineup could go a long way to breaking the team’s five-year playoff drought. And that’s without having played an official full season for the Canucks.

Whenever hockey returns for the 2020-21 campaign, Tanner Pearson might finally get the chance to play a full schedule with one team for the first time in three seasons. After the year he had playing alongside Horvat and the confidence he earned from the coaching staff in so many situations, one can only imagine what heights Pearson might reach during the rest of his Canucks’ tenure.

And, after last week, it’s worth noting that he has a really great family too.


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