With veteran forwards like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Marian Gaborik getting older, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson must now take over as offensive leaders for the Los Angeles Kings. As I wrote previously:
[Toffoli and Pearson] were the lovable kids of the team during the Cup heyday of 2012-2014. Three years later, they have established themselves as NHL regulars and are entering the middle period of their careers. As the Cup core of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Jonathan Quick gets older, it will be imperative for Toffoli and Pearson to take over as leaders, “C” or not. Toffoli and Pearson therefore serve as a barometer of the near-term success of the Kings. In other words, the Kings don’t make the playoffs next year unless Toffoli and Pearson score. A lot.
As fans know, the two 25-year-olds from Ontario (the province, although they did both play for the Reign) emerged in the NHL at roughly the same time, and generate brilliant chemistry when they play together. And Pearson shows no signs of slowing down. Pearson has increased his production over the last three seasons, achieving new season highs of 16, 36, and 44 points. In 80 games last season, he scored 24 goals and 20 assists. This preseason he has picked up where he left off, scoring 2 goals and 3 assists in 5 games. Here’s one of the goals:
Toffoli, however, experienced a setback in 2016-17 with a knee injury that limited him to 16 goals and 18 assists in 63 games. It was a clear letdown from 2015-16, in which he scored 31 goals and 27 assists. And it is one of many reasons why the Kings missed the playoffs last season. As Robyn wrote previously:
[The Kings have] higher expectations for Toffoli than they do for Pearson. In 63 games this season, [Toffoli] potted 16 goals and picked up 18 assists for 34 points. Toffoli appears to have a higher ceiling than Pearson and is more likely to be in the 25+ goal scoring range. Since Toffoli’s career points per game should be somewhere around .66 to .70, this is a "prove it" type of contract [3 years, $13.8 million].
The key question is whether Toffoli can flourish without the physical protection of Milan Lucic. Early in 2015-16, the Kings started 0-3 by playing Lucic with Kopitar. But by inserting Lucic into the second line in place of Pearson, the Carter-Lucic-Toffoli line exploded for 19 goals and 17 assists in the next 11 games, and the Kings won 9 of those games. Toffoli has admitted that the departure of Lucic to the Edmonton Oilers was tough for him. Lucic’s unique skill set helped the Kings contend for the Pacific Division title in 2015-16. Lucic assisted on 10 of Toffoli’s 31 goals in 2015-16, but more importantly, provided a physical presence that freed up Toffoli to get into scoring areas.
As I wrote before, That 70’s Line must be played together to maximize Toffoli’s production, and John Stevens is doing that to start the 2017-18 season. Toffoli is not the type to generate his own offense with fast skating and creative stickhandling. Rather, he is a sniper who is best when he gets the puck, with room to take a wide-open shot. Fans hope that the quick skating of Carter and Pearson can open up shooting lanes for Toffoli. (The basketball analogy is intentional, and I stand by it.)
Bold prediction: Pearson will score 30 goals this season. His high speed complements Carter’s game very well and they will create some highlight-reel goals. If someone like Kurtis MacDermid or Andy Andreoff emerges as a hard-nosed player who can stick up for teammates and keep opponents honest, then Toffoli will benefit. But Toffoli cannot score 30 goals all by himself.
Look for Pearson to score 30 goals and 23 assists this season, and for Toffoli to score 23 goals and 27 assists.