The Vancouver Canucks and their roster are about to embark on a volatile off-season. As they look to build off a powerful, Horvat-ian stride of progress, many difficult choices must be navigated if the Canucks want to continue to take steps towards their ultimate goal.
The names of the usual suspects will be floated around this offseason for cap-relief, however, a quieter name in Tanner Pearson could prove to alleviate some of the salary pressure the club is facing.
When the Canucks acquired Pearson at the 2019 trade deadline, they sought to salvage anything they could in the aftermath of the Erik Gudbranson chapter of Vancouver. In the 19 games that took place after the trade, it became quite clear that the Canucks may have found more than just scraps from the wreckage. Pearson found a home in Vancouver’s top-six, quickly gelling with Bo Horvat and registering 9 goals and 3 assists to end the season. The Canucks and their following patiently waited to see how Pearson would follow up on his pilot episode.
The 2019-20 campaign was a flagship year for the 28-year old winger as he posted a career-high in points with 45 in just 69 games. This season was also only the second time in his 7-year career that he registered 20+ goals. All this was accomplished while largely playing extremely tough defensive matchups riding shotgun to Bo Horvat. And just like his 19 game test run the year preceding, the question now was if he could play to this level come playoff time, continuing to eat the difficult defensive minutes while providing solid secondary scoring.
Pearson was Travis Green’s second most used forward at 5-on-5 in these playoffs as the young coach relied heavily on the combination of Pearson and Horvat to play against the opposition’s best. He used his quick wrist shot to score some extremely timely goals on the rush when the Canucks needed a boost including Vancouver’s first goal of the playoffs following against the Minnesota Wild. In fact, in the four games Pearson scored a goal or recorded a point, the Canucks found the win column which speaks to the importance of Vancouver’s depth stepping up in order for them to find success. There’s no doubt Pearson was looked to as a main member of that second wave of Canucks offence.
The experienced winger also provided coach Green with some flexibility in his lineup as he was given the opportunity to line up alongside Elias Pettersson and Tyler Toffoli on the top scoring line. He played just under 64 minutes of 5-on-5 with Vancouver’s super Swede, albeit with little success. With Pettersson and Pearson on the ice at 5-on-5, the Canucks were outscored 4 to 2 and were dominated in the expected goal column controlling just 35.2% of the quality in chances. Although his partnership with Pettersson was small in sample size, Pearson’s play with Horvat bore stronger results as they outscored the opposition 6 to 4 and controlled 38.37% of the expected goals. To the keen observer, neither sample showed spectacular results.
What Vancouver received in the playoffs from Pearson was a depth performance that allowed them to tread water while their stars shone to pull the team to shore. Pearson was a heavy body who did well along the boards and in the corners with a release that can beat goaltenders cleanly. There is absolutely value in that type of player, especially in the playoffs when the ice shrinks, battles become more important, and every shot on net counts. In fact, in my sample of tracked micro-data, Pearson was tied for the 4th most puck retrievals out of all Canucks skaters these playoffs and was also tied for fourth in goal scoring. However, his underlying numbers suggest that in an ideal world, he isn’t cut out to be a mainstay in Vancouver’s top-six. The Canucks got what they could out of him but his skill set is more suited to play lower down the lineup and fill into the top-six when injuries occur.
With the Canucks impending salary decisions, one question the Canucks should be asking themselves is if Pearson’s $3.75 million price tag is warranted.
Only 86 NHL forwards scored 20 goals or more this season. From a pure goal scoring aspect, Pearson clearly produced at a top-six clip. If we account for his league-leading 6 empty-net goals, his 15 goals scored on an NHL goalie is more in line of where Pearson should realistically be contributing. Evolving Hockey calculates a player’s individual contributions to his team by way of their standings points above replacement metric. They are able to assign a value to an individual’s impact on 5-on-5 offence, defence, powerplay, penalty-kill, and penalty differential and then measure it against a replacement-level player (read: a player that could be had for free on waivers) and how many points in the standings the individual would contribute over the replacement-level player. Pearson is one of only 6 Canucks skaters that played at least 500 minutes to have a negative impact on the standings.
SPAR via Evolving-hockey.com
Despite his 21 goals on the season, the Canucks were heavily outscored 45 to 30 at 5-on-5 when Pearson was on the ice and his powerplay contributions aren’t enough to make up for the difference. This served as the main detriment to Pearson’s SPAR in Evolving Hockey’s calculations.
Numbers are just one of many aspects to player evaluation and if we were to look at Pearson from Green’s point of view, he holds value. He’s a veteran winger that the coaching staff can trust in high leverage situations, is strong along the walls, and can contribute offensively while shifting up and down the lineup.
A player of his utility has a place on a relatively young team however, the Canucks need to make hard decisions and find creative solutions to clear cap space. If the Canucks want to find a way to bring back Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli, and or Chris Tanev, salary needs to be shed. Regardless of if the team even wants to bring back any combination of those three players, cap space will be extremely valuable if the Canucks want to keep adding to improve the team around the core.
Pearson is a player that is likely not in Vancouver’s long term plans due to his age and his career year should hold net positive value around the league. The Canucks will have to weigh the value of trading a piece that does help them win in the present rather than paying a tax in order to move some of their more difficult contracts and losing future value. In considering Pearson, the Canucks could find a solution that aids their current delicate financial balance sheet while keeping retaining future assets.