It took a couple of games and a slight tactical tweak for the Pittsburgh Penguins. And now left winger Tanner Pearson looks like General Manager Jim Rutherford’s latest steal.
Skipping past internet folly and angst which decried Jim Rutherford’s abilities based on misunderstood moves of the past 12 months, it appears Rutherford had his finger his team’s pulse before anyone else realized how deep the struggles would become. Rutherford saw the stale, going-through-the-motions play of his veterans continue from last season into this season. He saw a lack of scoring where it was needed and he realized one fast player doesn’t make a team a speed team.
And Jim Rutherford acted.
Enter Pearson, exit lightning fast but offensively challenged Carl Hagelin. At best, the move was met with lukewarm praise including this clunky writer who tepidly praised the move as a step towards shedding the no longer true label of a speed team. But Pearson was in a deep slump with LA.
We’re talking La Brea tar pits-deep slump. Pearson, 26, scored exactly zero goals in the first 17 games of the season.
Pearson could be a complimentary piece but he had never scored more than 44 points in a season. So, surely he wouldn’t be a vital cog and the shakeup the Penguins needed.
But Pearson, 6-foot-1, 201 pounds is proving to be a great fit for the Penguins and a necessary tool for several reasons. He is adding offense to a line with Evgeni Malkin which generates offensive chances by the barrel full but rarely converted from the left side. He is playing physical hockey and strong on the puck.
“When we acquired him, we knew he had offensive instincts,” said Mike Sullivan who referenced Pearson’s play with Jeff Carter. “The one thing that’s jumped out at us is his stiffness on the puck in the battle areas. He’s strong on the puck in the corners, in front of the net. He wins a lot of puck battles.”
So too did Carl Hagelin who was thought to be a necessary piece on the Malkin line because of his puck retrieval skills. But Hagelin never scored more than 10 goals in any of his four seasons with the Penguins.
Pearson has three goals in his last four games.
“(Pearson) can use his size and his strength. So, he’s different from what we’ve had in the past,” understated Sullivan. “Certainly we thought he could be a complimentary guy and has the ability to finish.”
Tanner Pearson: Dragging Malkin North-South
And so the Penguins are a little bit slower than they were before the trade. They’re also stronger, tougher, and more offensively capable. Pearson’s efforts are having a positive effect on the Evgeni Malkin duo as well. Too often that pair doesn’t play an honest game. They pass too much. They forget defense. And, they go east and west when north and south are open.
Pearson is also showing an ability to drive Malkin and Kessel north and south. By driving the play forward, Malkin especially is pushing the play. Their turnovers in the past few games are decidedly down. Malkin had zero turnovers and Kessel only one, Saturday night.
“We knew he had the ability to play with elite players,” said Sullivan. “We thought it might be a fit (with Malkin and Kessel). And that’s why we’ve tried him there and left him there for a number of games. We think they’re generating some chemistry.”
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, when the trio is together, their Corsi is only 44 percent. Their scoring chances generated are below water, too. But, they have scored four goals at 5v5 and yielded just one. Those stats also include the first few games when Pearson was a lost puppy in the Penguins system. The past three games have been a different story.
And not coincidentally, the Penguins have a point in all four games, including two wins; their best stretch in about one month.
Rutherford rebuilt the Penguins beginning in 2015 by acquiring Patric Hornqvist for James Neal, to much fan chagrin. He added players like Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak for peanuts on the trade market. Same goes for Derick Brassard and even Phil Kessel. Rutherford acquired those players for well less than he gave up.
The Penguins remake is unlikely concluded, and they may still publicly speak of being a speed team, but the realities are simple. The Penguins are still one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference when they play simply and physically. They have a chance if and when they play to their true strengths.
And Tanner Pearson pushed them in precisely that direction. He is Jim Rutherford’s latest steal.