By Kirk Luedeke
If NHL clubs are looking for the next interesting late-bloomer who could pay immediate dividends the way Andrew Shaw did for Chicago this season, then look no further than Barrie Colts forward Tanner Pearson.
|Barrie Colts forward Tanner Pearson had six points in six games for Canada at the World Juniors. (Getty Images)|
Twice passed over in the NHL Entry Draft, the third time will be the charm for the talented scorer in Pittsburgh June 22-23.
“I’m a versatile forward who has played every
position (up front),” Pearson told New England Hockey Journal
before he took off for the NHL’s annual scouting combine last
week in Toronto.
“They have me down as a left wing, but ¾ of my points came while I was playing right wing. I can play center, too; that’s the position I played my whole life.”
The native of Kitchener, who turns 20 in August, will be eligible to play in the AHL immediately for the team that drafts him. After 37-goal, 91-point breakout season with Barrie play another six points in as many games for Team Canada at the 2012 World Jr. Championship tourney, Pearson is the kind of player who makes for an inspiring story for those who aren’t noticed by NHL clubs the first or even second time around.
“I think it’s a bunch of things,” he said. “I was a late draft pick in the OHL and played Jr. B my first two years (after being drafted). Not making it right away made me an underdog per se and helped me work towards the goal of making Barrie.
“After I did that and had a good first year learning what it takes, I wanted to do everything I could last summer to get myself prepared to have a big season and keep playing good hockey.”
The 14th-round selection of the Colts in the 2008 OHL Priority Selection, Pearson played Jr. B with Waterloo in Ontario for two years before making the OHL as a rookie during the 2010-11 campaign. Skating for the hapless Colts, who had armed themselves for a Memorial Cup push in 2010 only to fall short to the eventual champion Windsor Spitfires meant that Pearson’s learning curve was a steep one. Barrie was one of the worst teams in the OHL a year ago, and Pearson saw firsthand what being competitive in that league would entail.
“Obviously, it was a tough year (in 2010-11) to say the least,” he said. “For guys that returned to the team, it was a learning curve. The team made some key trades and after we had kind of a slow start last season, we pulled things together. As we got more confident, we really pulled together as a team.”
Fast forward to fall, 2011. Pearson got off to a blistering start, and Barrie overcame a sluggish beginning to establish itself as a bona fide OHL contender once again. His diligent off-season work to improve his strength and conditioning paid off for him, and he never looked back en route to his 90-point year and a spot on Canada’s bronze medal-winning squad at the WJC.
Pearson is an intelligent playmaking winger who also has the release and accurate shot to put the puck in the net. Although his size is pretty average, he’s a willing and energetic player along the walls and uses a strong core to fight through checks and win battles for loose pucks.
“My vision is the biggest strength in my game,” said Pearson. “I can see plays happening at a high pace. The second thing I would say is my shot. I can take the shot and find the back of the net when the opportunity is there.”
With the kind of production to bring talent hounds into Barrie for closer looks all season long, a Western Conference NHL scout based in Ontario offered up this observation of Pearson’s upside:
“You aren’t going to hit a homerun on every pick,” he said. “Pearson offers your organization a player who can go to the AHL right away and contribute. You look at what Shaw did for the Blackhawks, and you say to yourself: ‘Why not us?’
“I like (Pearson’s) hockey sense and hustle. If he’s a late-bloomer, then you could have a real find on your hands.”
However, even though many NHL observers and draft analysts project a second-round position at a minimum for Pearson later in the month, not all are sold on his long-term potential.
“He’s not really for us,” said an NHL scout recently. “Is he a player who was successful because he was 19 and older than a lot of the other kids he was up against? That’s a question we asked ourselves a lot.”
For his part, Pearson knows there are a few things he needs to focus on before the challenge of making the jump to pro hockey becomes a reality for him.
“The biggest thing is my skating,” he said. “Being able to go so hard for the amount of time it takes at that level is an adjustment.”
Pearson grew up around the higher levels of the game. His father, Tim, works for Bauer Hockey and young Tanner was able to meet and be around NHL players from a young age. He was also a stick boy for the Kitchener Rangers under then-head coach and current NHL bench boss Peter DeBoer in New Jersey.
“I’ve been around the business and went to NHL practices with my dad when I was younger,” he said, noting that he looked up to Eric Lindros as his favorite player as a child. “Just having those experiences helped me I think, to see how the pros are and the little things they do that got them to that level.”
While Pearson’s first-round status is still up in the air, the safer bet is that a club with multiple early picks will roll the dice on him sooner rather than later. With a mature, pro-ready player who could make an immediate impact as soon as next season, Pearson’s draft wait should not take long.