Pearson Producing for Penguins

Pearson’s “big three” is not just a reference to the NBC series This Is Us anymore. The term can also describe newly acquired Pittsburgh Penguins’ player Tanner Pearson’s first three goals with the club. His scoring spark has helped put the Penguins back in the win column, and start their climb into playoff contention.

Rutherford Pulls the Trade Pin

Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford made the first move of his predicted big shakeup, after commenting on the team’s complacency and lack of drive, by pulling the pin on speedy left-winger Carl Hagelin. The one-for-one move sent Hagelin out west to the Los Angeles Kings and brought Pearson to the Steel City, where his NHL career began. He was selected 30th overall by the Kings at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, held at PPG Paints Arena, formerly CONSOL Energy Center.

Both teams, which were scraping the bottom of the barrel, were hoping the change of scenery would get the two top-six forwards producing again, and get their teams back near the top of the standings, where they belong.

Related: Penguins Trade Carl Hagelin to Kings for Pearson

New Pastures Are Good for Pearson

According to Jonathan Bombulie at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, there was one sure way for the Penguins to “win” the Hagelin/Pearson trade:

Pearson shakes off his scoring slump, reverts to his form from the previous four seasons and provides a solid secondary scoring threat for this season plus two more. (from ‘10 things to know about the Penguins’ trade for Tanner Pearson,’ Pittsburgh Tribune-Review – 11/15/18).

The slump Bombulie was referring to included just one point, an assist, from Pearson in all 17 games he played with the Kings this season. Those stats were uncharacteristic, as Pearson had a career-best in goals and points in the 2016-17 season with 24 and 44, respectively, and a career-best in assists in the 2017-18 season with 25. The Stanley Cup-winning left winger also recorded a career-worst plus/minus ranking as a minus-nine with L.A. this season.

One of the biggest concerns about losing Hagelin was that the Penguins would get slower, thus lose the chance for breakaways and long stretch passes that could lead to open ice and scoring opportunities. While Pearson isn’t as fast as Hagelin — and, in truth, not many players are — he’s had no problem finding the open net or a place on the scoresheet.

Penguins Tanner Pearson Columbus Blue Jackets David Savard
Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Tanner Pearson shoots against Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman David Savard. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

In just six games with the Penguins, Pearson has racked up three goals on 10 shots, and one assist. He is a plus-three with Pittsburgh, bringing his ranking to a minus-six in 26 total games. Possibly, the rise in production could be attributed to an increase in average ice time. With the Kings, Pearson was averaging 13:30 of ice time. With the Penguins, that figure has increased to an average of 15:04.

Interestingly, when Pearson’s name shows up on the scoresheet, the Penguins have been able to grab at least one point in the contest. His points have come in a 5-4 home overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres (Nov. 19), a 5-1 home Thanksgiving Eve win against the Dallas Stars (Nov. 21), and a 4-2 home win against the Columbus Blue Jackets (Nov. 24).

Related: Pearson Just Not Cutting It for Kings

Penguins Rising Through The Ranks

By mid-November, even after the Hagelin/Pearson trade, the Penguins were in uncharted territory — last place in the Eastern Conference, and second-to-last in the entire NHL. The last time in recent memory that the Penguins were in such a dire state was midway through the 2008-09 season, when the team was sitting in tenth place (out of 15) in the Eastern Conference, and coach Dan Bylsma was brought in to turn the team around. Though, back then, Sidney Crosby and company hadn’t even won a Stanley Cup, so drawing comparisons between a young, hungry team and a potential dynasty is something of a moot point.

Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87), Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel
Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87), right wing Bryan Rust (17) and left wing Jake Guentzel were all members of the 2017 Stanley Cup-winning team. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The similarities, however, are in the shakeups and the fires they light under teams. With Rutherford signing on for a three-year contract extension, and Sullivan being the only coach in team history to lead the club to more than one Stanley Cup victory, it wasn’t likely that a top-down change would be the answer. This time around, it’s up to Pearson to create the spark, and he’s done just that so far and hopes to continue to produce on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.

Of his new linemates, Pearson told Shelly Anderson of PGH Hockey Now:

“You realize when you’re playing defensively against them how hard it is to cover them,” Pearson said Thursday of the skill of his linemates that he saw only as opponents before the trade. “It’s, uh, it sucked, to be honest. Now being on this side it’s been fun.”

Fun is an underrated quality on winning teams. When the players are having fun, when their chemistry is meshing, pucks find their way into the net, and points are scratched into the win column. The PMK line is having fun on the ice, so it’s to be expected that the goals will keep coming and the wins will keep stacking up to put the Penguins back in the playoff picture for the twelfth consecutive season.