Commentary

Toffoli, Pearson pass test in L.A.

Los Angeles Kings look to contend for years to come with young stars on roster

Updated: May 8, 2014, 12:37 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It seems almost hard to believe that some seven months ago, when the Los Angeles Kings broke camp, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson weren't part of the group.

On Sept. 29, they were sent down to AHL Manchester to begin the season, even though Toffoli had played in 12 postseason games with the Kings last spring. The team's brain trust believed both youngsters needed just a bit more seasoning.

"I think there's a difference between making a team and being ready," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said as he sat back in his office chair Wednesday. "It's analogous at times to how you see these quarterbacks in football, 'OK, he makes the team, but is he ready?' You see a young QB make a bad team in the NFL. 'OK, he's made the team, but is he really ready?' There's a difference. Given that the role both these kids will one day play for us, higher up in our lineup, it requires more training. It's a more difficult job description. I think we felt, the old adage, nobody ever failed from being over-prepared."

Toffoli, who turned 22 on April 24, and Pearson, who turns 22 in August, are thoroughbreds. They're going to play top-six roles on this team for years to come. The belief was they should hone those top-six skills in the AHL until they were ready to play a similar role at the NHL level, instead of staying up and toiling as extra parts.

"Nobody was ever better at this than Detroit," Lombardi said in a nod to the Red Wings organization and how it has developed players over the years.

How did the kids respond?

[+] EnlargeLos Angeles Kings
Derek Leung/Getty ImagesThe Kings have a foundation of younger players, including Slava Voynov, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, to lean on.

Well, Toffoli went down and scored 15 goals in 18 games.

"You obviously wanted to send a message and say that you shouldn't be in that league anymore," Toffoli said Wednesday on the eve of Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals versus the Anaheim Ducks.

Lombardi's eyes widened as he talked about going to see Pearson play an AHL game earlier this season.

"It was a game in Providence and I had told him I would be there in the building," the Mad Professor said. "He had two goals and an assist, and was the game's first star. I remember thinking, 'That's how do you do it. Stick it right up my ass.' He was awesome."

They both were awesome with Manchester. Their response to that demotion was important.

"That's part of the test," Lombardi said. "Are you going to go down there and get better or are you going to pout? That's part of the player's growth."

Both were called up Feb. 19 for the third time this season, but also the final time. And their skill and speed helped the Kings into a strong post-Olympic run.

"They've still got a lot of work to do," Lombardi cautioned. "But you see some of the things, to be able to play in an environment like San Jose in the playoffs, that's a big challenge for a young player. That's the other thing you've got in your mind, 'OK, he's ready to play in the league. But is he ready to go into San Jose and play in that environment? That's a whole other level.' You saw their poise level."

Toffoli scored in Game 5 and Game 7 at San Jose. Pearson collected an assist in Game 5 and posted a goal and an assist in Game 7.

Playing on a line centered by veteran star Jeff Carter, the two kids are part of the next generation for a Kings team intent on contending for a long time. Alec Martinez (26), Jake Muzzin (25), of course, Slava Voynov (24) and the great Drew Doughty (24) are part of that youth movement as well.

This is a well-run organization that has drafted and developed players the proper way. There's lasting power in what they're doing.

But it requires patience.

In the case of Toffoli and Pearson, both prospects were identified by Mike Futa, the Kings' director of amateur scouting. There's obvious pride in his voice, seeing both young players succeed.

"They've had to earn the coaches' trust and they're still chipping away at that," Futa told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "It's nice to see at times [coach] Darryl [Sutter] has them out in some strong defensive areas, they've won the confidence of their coach. To be able to go into that kind of situation we were in San Jose, which you couldn't have a more hostile environment, and him having the ability to throw those kids in that situation and for them to not only be in that situation but also succeed, it's huge for the confidence of the coach and for them as young players."

Always a natural goal scorer, Toffoli went 47th overall in the 2010 NHL draft. Pearson is quite a story; he was passed over in two NHL drafts before the Kings took him in the first round -- 30th overall -- in 2012.

"He was pretty close to being a late-round pick the year before but it's not something a scout is supposed to really be saying," Futa said with a laugh. "You end up taking him in the first round the next year. But that summer [2011], I challenged him a lot and so did the Barrie Colts, to take his conditioning a lot more seriously. To his credit, it's one thing to be a late bloomer, it's another thing to almost make a lifestyle change. He bought into that and he was rewarded for it."

Pearson broke out in the 2011-12 season with 91 points (37-54) in 60 games with the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts.

"Not being drafted those first few years, I just didn't want my career to come to an end," Pearson said. "So I knew that one summer there had to be a big push, and it kind of clicked for me."

Futa already knew the Pearson family well and was intent on selling the forward to the rest of the Kings' scouting staff for the June 2012 draft, despite Pearson being an older prospect.

"As a staff, we were unanimous on picking him," Futa said. "I gave him a wink on the way up to the stage, I think he knew it was coming. And it was a nice thing, I've known the family for a long time. I had no doubt he would put in the work, and he has.

"It's a nice story. Some kids pack their bags and go home when they're not drafted. In his case, he met all the different challenges put forth to him."

While Toffoli's road here is more traditional, he still had to work on his skating to improve his chances.

"Oh, absolutely," he said. "I've been working hard on it, every summer. Not just skating but just being stronger. And being stronger has helped my skating."

Futa has known Toffoli since his minor midget days.

"All he's ever done is score goals. All people have ever done is knock his skating," Futa said.

"Now that he's beginning to physically mature, you see those same traits, the way he found ways to get open in junior, he found ways to get open in minor midget, and you can't teach the way the puck comes off his stick."

Natural goal scorers are just that. And that's Tyler Toffoli.

"These two guys, they don't need a lot of chances to hurt you," a rival Western Conference executive said of Pearson and Toffoli. "They can score. They make plays. They're smart players. It's been their MO since junior, both of them.

"Pearson was a late bloomer, and credit the Kings for seeing that in him. It's a different kind of gamble to use a first-round pick on a prospect that's been passed over before. But I've got no issue with that, they were right on Pearson. And Toffoli, he has scored forever, he can just flat-out score."

But the learning curve for both Toffoli and Pearson is far from over. There's much more growth there to happen.

"You look at their bodies, they're still kids," Lombardi said. "They don't even shave yet."

No, but they can play with the big boys.

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