By Brian Metzer
Pittsburgh Current Hockey Writer
Pittsburgh Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford’s message to his team was clear – play better or changes would come.
The team responded by losing two of three, which extended a recent streak of futility to just one win in their past seven games. Rutherford wasn’t impressed and held true to his word.
He didn’t just make a change, he shipped out a popular teammate and locker-room presence who had won two Stanley Cups with the team. Carl Hagelin, who gained notoriety as a member of the Penguins popular HBK line with Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel during the 2016 Stanley Cup run, was sent to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for left wing on Wednesday.
“We felt that we needed to make some changes,” Rutherford said. “This could be the start of more changes or we’ll see how this goes here for a little bit. The way things have gone here for the first part of the season, it’s obvious that we had to change something up.
“I feel bad. Carl Hagelin is a very popular guy. I like him a lot personally and he was a part of winning the Stanley Cup but at the same time we’re not tracking towards winning the Stanley Cup right now and changes are necessary.”
In the 6-foot-1, 208 pound Pearson the Penguins get a bigger forward who is capable of scoring goals and generating points from the wing. He scored 24 goals and 44 points for the Kings during the 2016-17 season and has never scored less than 15 goals in a season when he’s played at least 79 games.
Hagelin by contrast has never scored more than 17 goals in season, doing it twice for the New York Rangers, but never scored more than 10 in a season with the Penguins.
The lack of secondary production from players like Hagelin has been one of the biggest problems for the Penguins this season. They have scored 53 goals as a team – 23 of which have come from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel – and have not gotten a goal from their third or fourth lines in nine games.
The Kings are the league’s lowest scoring team, averaging only 2.00 goals per game, and that fact significantly limited Pearson’s output this season. He’s managed only one assist in 17 games, but Rutherford believes he can turn it around in Pittsburgh.
“He’s off to a slow start this year and maybe lost his confidence a little bit,” Rutherford said. “But he’s had a good career. I think a change will be good for him and he’s a good fit for us.”
The 26-year-old is four years younger than Hagelin and brings cost certainty in that he’s signed for the next two seasons at $3.75 million per season.
Pearson heard about the trade Wednesday morning on his way to practice with the Kings.
“It was a pretty crazy day yesterday,” Pearson said. “I found out on my way to the rink. Pulled a quick U-turn and went back home and started packing up the house. I was able to get a lot done, which was nice, but flying here and time changes, it was a pretty long day.”
He was on the ice for the Penguins’ morning skate ahead of their battle with the Eastern Conference leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena. The team didn’t run through line rushes during their session, but it isn’t out of the question to assume that he’ll see some time with Malkin and Patric Hornqvist on the Penguins new-look top line.
Crosby will miss the game and upwards of the next week with an upper-body injury.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Pearson said. “When you look at it, my career started here. It was good meeting all the guys this morning and it’ll be a lot of fun to get on the ice with them tonight.”
Pearson was selected by the Kings in the first round of the 2012 NHL draft that was held in Pittsburgh.
“I think personally and team-wise, in LA it wasn’t the start that we all wanted, especially personally,” Pearson said. “But I’m hoping a change of scenery kind of refreshes things and I can get back to my game.”
Playing his game has seen him thrive with skill players such as Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli in LA. For his career he scored 69 goals, 75 assists and 144 points in 325 games. He isn’t shy about shooting the puck and has generated 627 shots, which includes a career high 187 during the 16-17 season.
Pearson might not be as quick as Hagelin, but he is an above average skater that is capable of killing penalties. He’s averaged close to minute of PK time per game over the course of his career.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan knows it is tough to lose a player like Hagelin, but he is pretty excited about seeing what Pearson can bring to the table.
“As I said to Tanner, we’re obviously excited to have him. We think he can help our team. We just don’t want him to overthink it. We want him to trust his instincts and play hard and embrace his teammates and everything else will take care of itself. We’ll give him a rudimentary understanding of how we’re trying to play, but we’re not going to fill his head with too much information. We just want him to trust his instincts and play.”
- Matt Murray will be back in net for the Penguins against the Lightning. This will mark Murray’s first start since Nov. 5 when he was pulled after two periods during a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Murray has served at Casey DeSmith’s backup for the past three games.
Sullivan explained where he thinks Murray is at and why he’s going back to him in this game.
“He’s worked on his game in practice. He’s spent some time with [goaltending coach Mike Buckley]. Matt’s a number one goalie. As I’ve said all along here even though Casey has had the net for the past couple of games Matt is still very much in the picture. That never changed. We still have the ultimate faith and trust in Matt. He’s a terrific goalie. He’s an accomplished goalie for such a young guy and he’s got a great opportunity tonight against a very good team to backstop our team.”
- Crosby skated by himself ahead of practice. Sullivan specified that his injury is strictly an upper-body injury and is not a concussion.
- The Penguins recalled Derek Grant from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. At the AHL level, Grant has three goals, four points and a plus-5 in five games with WBS. Earlier this morning, Grant contributed an assist, two shots and was plus-2 in WBS’ 5-1 win at Springfield, a game that featured goalie Tristan Jarry scoring into an empty net for WBS.
- The Penguins inked Rutherford to a three-year contract extension on Wednesday ahead of the Hagelin for Pearson swap.