The playoff math doesn’t look good for the Kings, whose wild-card hopes grow dimmer with each passing day. And that might soon have the team pondering another equation:
Where would the Kings be without Tanner Pearson?
In his second full NHL season, the winger is second on the team in goals with 19 and third in points with 41. That has taken up some of the goal-scoring slack left by Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, who have just 18 goals combined.
The Kings will pay Pearson $1.4 million this season. They’ll pay the combination of Kopitar and Gaborik more than 10 times that amount.
That’s a disparity that will be addressed this July when Pearson becomes a restricted free agent. But it’s also something he won’t be thinking about until then.
“That’s put in the back of my mind until summertime,” he said. “Right now the goal is to help the team reach the playoffs. We’re in that fight and every game counts.”
The fight resumes Thursday at the Staples Center where the Kings, chasing the St. Louis Blues for the Western Conference’s last wild-card berth, meet the Buffalo Sabres.
Even if the season ultimately winds up being a lost one for the Kings, it has been a breakout one for Pearson, who has improved in virtually every category — including confidence.
“When you’re more confident with the puck, the game may slow down a bit,” the 24-year-old said. “And you’re able to make better plays with it.”
Coach Darryl Sutter said Pearson’s development was slowed by a broken leg, which cost him the second half of the 2014-15 season.
“It’s a long ways to get back to being totally confident and totally healthy,” Sutter said of Pearson, who had 15 goals and 21 assists last season. “We expect you, if you’re going to play in the top two lines, to be a member of the 20-goal scorers.
“Tanner’s come a long ways as a player in terms of training and off-ice too. And that’s a big difference too.”
That progress was tested by a 15-game scoreless streak last winter. But since snapping that three days after Christmas, Pearson has produced 25 points in 34 games
“Any time you go goalless, no matter who you are, it obviously gets in your head a bit,” he said. “But you’ve just got to stick with the program and you’ve just got to know that eventually things will work out.”
Pearson is taking the same approach toward the off-season contract negotiations. According to the website CapFriendly.com, the Kings have contract obligations of approximately $60 million for 16 players who are signed for next season. And with the NHL salary cap expected to increase little, if at all, from the current $73 million, the Kings might have to move a high-priced veteran such as Dustin Brown (owed $5.875 million next season) or Gaborik ($4.875 million) to give them some financial flexibility to sign Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, another restricted free agent.
Privately, the team says re-signing both players is a high priority and an achievable one even without a trade.
“I would love to be here,” Pearson said. “I grew up here with these guys. It’s one of the best places to play — if not the best — in my opinion.
“So I look forward to being back here.”
KINGS NEXT UP
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
On the air: TV: FS West; Radio: 790.
Update: The Kings need a victory to finish their seven-game homestand with a winning record. A victory also would snap a two-game losing streak and help ease the pain of Tuesday’s loss in a franchise-record, 11-round shootout to last-place Arizona. Buffalo (28-30-12) lost the opener of its three-game California trip Tuesday in San Jose. The Kings could get wing Jordan Nolan back from injury. He skated with the rest of the team Wednesday. “It’s about time,” Sutter said of Nolan’s return from a lower-body injury. “He’s played [two] games in about six weeks,” Sutter said.