It’s a very small sample size, but if Tanner Pearson continues the torrid pace he’s set through the first six games of the season, a replica of the Calder Trophy will be sitting on his mantle next summer.
And this begs two questions. The first is: Why on Earth doesn’t Darryl Sutter play him more? And the second is: Is it fair that Pearson is eligible for the Calder Trophy in the first place?
What Pearson is doing this season so far is truly remarkable. He’s leading all rookies in scoring with five goals and seven points in six games despite the fact that he’s getting only 12:33 in ice time per game. His linemate, Tyler Toffoli, isn’t doing too badly either, with three goals and seven points despite playing only 13:22 per game.
Some of that success has to do with playing on a line with Jeff Carter, no doubt. But if neither Pearson nor Toffoli was worthy of playing with a player of Carter’s ilk, they wouldn’t be drawing shifts with him. It’s difficult to find fault with the Kings for their handling of Pearson and Toffoli, given that they’re 4-1-1 and in second place in the Western Conference. But in their past two games - a 1-0 shootout win over the St. Louis Blues and a 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild – the Kings were badly outshot and had a Corsi of -54 combined in the two games.
Against Minnesota, Pearson and Toffoli were the only Kings goalscorers, despite the fact both received a season-low for ice time in the game – Tanner logged just 10:30 and Pearson skated for just 11:35. Neither player gets an inordinate number of offensive zone starts, both have great analytics numbers and neither has been on the ice for a single goal against this season. For that matter, neither has Carter, who logs almost 18 minutes a game.
Both Pearson and Toffoli are solid players in every measurable advanced statistic. Pearson, in fact, is second in the league in five-on-five goals per 60 minutes played, and Toffoli is seventh. In terms of points compared to total minutes played among the top 30 scorers in the league, Pearson is tied for fourth in the league with a point per every 10.8 minutes played and Toffoli is ninth, producing a point for every 11.5 minutes played. Coincidentally, Sidney Crosby (one for every 8.6), Patric Hornqvist (8.8) and Evgeni Malkin (10.3) are the top three.
The Kings have been successful so far, but lately especially, there has been an unhealthy reliance on their goaltending. Their puck possession has been rather abysmal the past two games, but Pearson and Toffoli’s numbers suggest they’re among the best players on the roster in terms of not only puck possession, but in creating chances once they get the puck. It’s pretty difficult to get scored on when you have the puck all the time.
If Pearson and Toffoli haven't earned a bigger role with the Kings than they have right now, it will be impossible for them to do so. Neither has used a lack of deployment as a reason for low production and while the Kings are indeed a veteran-laden team, they need to give more responsibility to the players who are producing for them.
As far as the second question goes, yes, it’s fair that Pearson is considered a rookie because the NHL’s rules say he’s a rookie. The league’s rules clearly state that any player who plays 25 or fewer games the previous year or has never played more than six in each of two years, is eligible for the Calder. Pearson played exactly 25 last season.
But he also played 24 playoff games, which means he had almost 50 total games under his belt by the time he started this season. And 24 of those games were played in the most intense, pressure filled and difficult games of the season. Pearson wouldn’t be the first player to be in that situation. In 1971, Ken Dryden won the Conn Smythe Trophy after leading the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup, then won the Calder Trophy the next season. In 1987-88, Sean Burke of the New Jersey Devils played 30 games – 13 in the regular season and 17 more in the playoffs – before starting his official rookie season in the NHL.
The NHL has an age requirement when it comes to the Calder. Perhaps it’s time it considered an experience requirement as well. After all, Pearson’s 47 games of NHL experience compared to Andre Burakovsky’s zero doesn’t exactly represent an even playing surface, does it?