For the next month or two, we’ll be taking a look at the players who made the Los Angeles Kings’ 2016-17 season what it was:
a crushing disappointment that got people fired an up-and-down journey which managed to be both unusual and familiar. Rather than the good-bad-future-grade format we’ve used in past seasons, we’ll ask a crucial question and answer it using it what we saw this year.
Will Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson be All-Stars within the next three years?
We conclude our series with a joint review of Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. In the hearts of Kings fans, the two are often thought of as a tandem, as they are inextricably linked. Both are 25 years of age, were linemates in the minors, and have made a splash as linemates in the NHL. Both play wing, skate fast, and have effective wrist shots. And both were signed for a bargain this offseason by Rob Blake, who considered their signings a priority.
In many ways it is appropriate to end our series with Toffoli and Pearson. They 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 a prospect, Toffoli was considered the more glamorous of the two, having been drafted two years before Pearson, and debuting in the NHL one year before. Having scored 52 goals in 65 games with the Ottawa 67’s in 2011-12, Toffoli was considered an impact player and pure scorer, and eventually got comfortable doing so in the NHL. Pearson, however, was less prolific as a prospect and was originally a practice player for in the 2014 playoffs. But with the Kings being outclassed in the first two games, Pearson took the ice in Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks, and became the third King to make his debut in the playoffs. In an offensive support role, he handled the pressure admirably, and together with Toffoli created beautiful chemistry with plays like this:
Their chemistry as linemates brought a visible impact to the Kings on their way to the 2014 Stanley Cup.
What is the difference between Toffoli’s and Pearson’s play? The two often seem similar and interchangeable, as both have speed and a nice wrist shot. To me, Pearson is more like a slasher in basketball like Jeremy Lin or Andre Iguodala—driving to the net, skillful dribbling, and drawing body contact. You don’t see as much stickhandling and sacrifice of this kind from Toffoli:
In contrast, Toffoli is more like a pure shooter in basketball, like Klay Thompson and Steve Kerr. He receives passes and is expected to shoot, and is most impactful when he’s wide open:
So will Toffoli and Pearson be All-Stars within three years? It will be difficult, simply because of the way All-Star rosters are constructed—either with glamorous young players like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Patrik Laine, or established veterans like Joe Pavelski, Patrick Kane, and Sidney Crosby. Rising mid-20s players get less publicity.
However, the sky is still the limit for Toffoli and Pearson. Toffoli scored 31 goals and 27 assists in 2015-16, many with the help of Milan Lucic. A knee injury limited him to 16 goals and 18 assists in 63 games in 2016-17. But this normalizes to 21 goals and 23 assists over an 82-game season, which is still not too shabby. Pearson, over the last three seasons, has increased his production and achieved new season highs of 16, 36, and 44 points. There is no reason to believe the recovering Toffoli and the rising Pearson will not achieve even greater things. They are both 25 years old and have a lot of hockey ahead of them.
Toffoli and Pearson can be All-Stars within three years, but to do so, they must emerge as the new scoring leaders of the team as the Cup core gets older. They must also build a reputation for carrying the Kings into the playoffs each year, and escape the slump of the previous three seasons. Their bargain contracts were equal parts loyalty on their part, and management’s desire to have them continue to prove their worth. To maximize the players, That 70’s Line, which had superb Corsi statistics together in 2016-17, must be played consistently—the two have been most successful when they play together. When playing together, they have created a proven product that is much greater than themselves individually.