Practice in the dark, kids. That's how you make it to the NHL. It worked for Tanner Pearson and it can work for you too.
"There was one drill where he had us shooting a puck with our eyes closed, just to get used to where you were on the ice and where the net was from where you were shooting," recalled the 21-year old forward, talking about his junior coach, Dale Hawerchuk.
That's just one of many tales along a journey that's taken Pearson from undrafted prospect to one of the top young hopefuls in the Kings organization. Nothing seems to stop the stocky forward, who believes hard work eventually pays off.
Although he was passed over at both the 2010 and 2011 NHL Drafts, his body continued to mature and his commitment to the game increased. In the 2011-12 season, Pearson had a breakout year, posting 91 points in 60 games, including 37 goals. LA, coming off their first Stanley Cup a few weeks prior, scooped him up at the end of the opening round, 30th overall.
Coming off an impressive rookie campaign in the AHL (19 goals and 47 points, both good enough for fourth-best on the Monarchs), there was an outside chance Pearson could make the Kings main roster during training camp this season. The odds may have been small, but he's a natural left wing - a position where the Kings have been big in size, but thin in production for several years.
Assistant GM Rob Blake, who also serves as the Monarchs GM, thinks that could be changing in the not-to-distant future, thanks to Pearson.
"He's a goal scorer," began Blake. "One of those guys that when there might not be a lot going on in the game, and all of a sudden he gets the puck for a split second and it ends up in the net."
New to his managerial role with the Kings, it hasn't taken Blake long to notice Pearson's skill set and potential.
"I've noticed a lot lately that pucks tend to find him. I've played with guys throughout my career where they seem to just anticipate the play, where there's rebounds and loose pucks. They seem to be the guy that's standing there with no one around them. You kind of wonder how they did that, it's more of a hockey sense thing. So, I think that his hockey sense and ability is at a pretty high level."
Known for keeping prospects in the incubator of the AHL, the Kings didn't have much of a choice this season. After a summer of hand-wringing and several roster moves, the team had too many contracted players and had to send Pearson back to Manchester.
Through all the camps, practices, conversations with coaches and managers, Pearson appreciates the fact the Kings haven't overloaded him with information. He's only had a few conversations with GM Dean Lombardi and most of his input to this point has come from Monarchs coach Mark Morris.
"If there's too much feedback, that's probably all you start thinking about," Pearson remarked. "Whereas, if you get a little less, it's like, 'Alright, so what do I need to work on?'"
"Kids with potential and guys that are targeted to be NHL-ers, have an innate sense. You have to allow them some freedoms to create and try things but at the same time, not at the expense of the team and their goals. I think that Tanner is extremely bright, he's a kid that I think is going to have a long career in this game. He has a ton of potential."
Upon arriving as a rookie last season, the coach instantly noted he was a smooth skater, but it took a while to really appreciate everything the young forward could do.
"We didn't give him a ton of quality ice, he still was just getting adjusted to the quickness and everything," he said. Then, things changed one day in the middle of a game.
"I wasn't too happy that we were shying away from the net front - and when I threw him out there, first opportunity he had, he made a real clever play and we scored. Then he did it again...and he got some real key tips and viola! We have a net front guy or a slot guy that knows how to play that position and that's kind of how I recall seeing his confidence start to develop."
How the infamous 'White Line' of Pearson-Vey-Toffoli came to be comes from a similar, rather organic, development. It wasn't the doings of some genius, a white board or a stack of stats.
"I think I realized that Toffoli had a knack to finish around the net and I realized that Vey liked to make plays. We needed a guy that had good north-south speed," said Morris. "In the early going, [Pearson] made a move to his forehand on the outside, on the left wing. That's a really hard move to make, especially when you're in full flight. He brought the puck to the middle for a split second and then pushed it outside, took that extra stride and blew by the guy and ripped one. That was the first inclination that he was a NHL-er in the making."
Ah yes, the dream of becoming an NHL player one day. As a thought that's consumed Pearson for years, it really began to crystalize the day he was drafted.
"To be able to go on that stage, you dream of that as a kid, to put on that jersey. It’s a lot harder than I probably would have expected. You think when you’re growing up it’s going to be awesome playing hockey as a job, which it is. I’m not complaining one bit, but it takes a lot of work, a lot of hours to make it."
In addition to all the work he puts in for Morris and the Monarchs, Pearson also watches NHL games as often as possible. Why? For the free education, of course.
"My coach in junior, he always called it that, a 'free education,'" Pearson said with a laugh. "[I watch for] tendencies on what players are doing and if they make a mistake, what they could have done, or how they could have played the play differently."
That's not the only film he studies though. "I think the biggest thing is watching yourself. I pretty much watch my clips every morning after a game to see how I can make myself better from the game before."
He does it all. He practices with his eyes closed, breaks down tape, plays whatever position his coaches need. So far, nothing seems to rattle him, which is why Blake says the team's leadership group has been uber impressed.
"The very first game after that, [Dean] had talked to Tanner and wanted to see how he reacted - you have a couple of your
buddies, who are all on the same level, and two are called up - he went out and scored on his first shift, had two assists and was first star of the game. It shows his mental attitude," Blake said. "He didn't really sit around and pout or anything, he made the most of what was available."
Morris, concerned about one of his top offensive weapons, described things in a similar fashion.
"Beforehand, I asked him if he was all right, if he was dialed in, and he nodded yes and said he's okay," relayed the Monarchs bench boss. "But it was evident that he was a little bit miffed. So, after the fact, I commended him for how he responded. He kind of had a smirk on his face like he knew he showed the brass exactly what they were looking for."
Now for his next trick, Pearson will attempt to show Sutter and the Kings he can do it at the NHL level.
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