The reality of the Kings’ free fall hit Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli when they showed up at the team’s practice facility.
The trade rumors surrounding Pearson came to fruition Wednesday morning when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Carl Hagelin. Pearson had an afternoon flight and there wasn’t much time for goodbyes.
“But he came in to grab his stuff and obviously I saw him quickly,” Toffoli said.
Changes are happening fast to the Kings, whose 12 losses in 17 games forced another move that was symbolic but necessary. The trade frees the Kings from Pearson’s salary that pays $3.75 million annually through the 2020-21 season. Hagelin is in the last season of a contract that pays $4 million, and Pittsburgh will retain $250,000 of his salary to even out the money, according to several reports.
It is otherwise a one-for-one deal of two underachieving wingers. Pearson was a member of the Kings’ 2014 Stanley Cup-winning team who scored 39 goals the previous two seasons, but he became a trade piece even as his production dried up. He has one assist and packs a 30-game goal-scoring drought to Pittsburgh.
Interim coach Willie Desjardins said he targeted Pearson as a player he could possibly turnaround, but Pearson appeared to lose confidence and it was evident Tuesday night in a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“He was really frustrated on the bench,” Desjardins said. “Very frustrated.”
Hagelin has one goal and two assists in 16 games with Pittsburgh, low numbers considering his linemates were Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist. He is known as a penalty-killing specialist with speed who won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017. The Ducks acquired him for those skills in 2015 but Hagelin ended up getting benched, then traded after 43 games.
General manager Rob Blake, en route from Toronto, said in a release that Hagelin’s assets are speed and “getting to holes.” Desjardins indicated that he would put Hagelin on a line with fellow Swede Adrian Kempe. The two skate together every summer.
“All the boys seem to like him,” Kempe said. “He’s a great guy … hopefully he can bring the speed and hard work. He’s done that in Pittsburgh for a long time too. I’m excited to have him here.”
Pearson’s departure was personal for Toffoli. The two rose up through the organization together and were longtime linemates with Jeff Carter.
“Over the years, we’ve become really good friends, starting in New Hampshire when the travel wasn’t as easy, getting sent down and getting called back up,” Toffoli said. “We had a couple of those trips together. When you win a Stanley Cup together, the bond kind of grows even stronger. It’s going to be different not seeing him every day, but like I said, it’s the business. I’m not worried about us not staying in touch. We’re still going to be friends. But it’s just going to be different not going and battling with him.”
Pearson tweeted his thanks to the Kings as he embarked on a new chapter. Meanwhile, Desjardins met with Toffoli and pointed to the need for younger players like him to take charge in digging the Kings out.
“He’s a player that has to make the step, from being a guy that can just show up and if he has a good game or a bad game it doesn’t really matter because those other guys are going to carry him,” Desjardins said. “There’s way more pressure and accountability on him. And that’s a good thing for him.”
Toffoli said that Pearson “was kind of the first domino to fall.” More change is expected if the losing continues. But what really reverberated Wednesday was the shock at how quickly this one-time dynasty has deteriorated.
“I didn’t expect this, but I guess, in a way, the way we had training camp and the way we started the season, you could see it kind of coming,” Drew Doughty said. “But we also thought we would have got right out of it a lot sooner than this, so it’s frustrating.”
Gabriel Vilardi has been cleared for full practice and will be evaluated “after a couple of weeks to determine [the] next step,” Blake said in an email. … Jonathan Quick has a “good chance” to start skating at the end of the week, Desjardins said. … Matt Luff was recalled.