Chris Tierney will be entering his fourth year in the NHL this season.
The San Jose Sharks center is still only 23-years old.
Having just had his birthday a few weeks ago, youth is very much still on his side, for now.
When it comes to NHL forwards though, “prime” years are much younger than many think.
Generally speaking, the best years for an NHL forward are from about age 23 through 27. Not 28-33 as some may have you believe.
Ergo, the time is now for Tierney to take a step up if he ever wants to be more than just a bottom-six center playing primarily fourth-line minutes.
Since coming into the league in 2014-15, Tierney has been a perplexing player. In 43 games as a rookie, Tierney picked up 21 points, basically a half-point-per-game average. Furthermore, 14 of those points came in his final 18 games, primarily playing as the third-line center. With that type of production, this writer was hoping for a 35-40 point season in Tierney’s first full year (2015-16).
Maybe it was a sophomore slump, but the Sharks were a stronger team in 15-16 and Tierney finished with only 20 points in 79 games. His plus/minus rating fell from plus-3 to minus-16 and his team goals-for-per 60 likewise took a dive. Tierney dropped from a team-high 2.64 GF/60 (among forwards) in 14-15 to 12th at just 1.48 in 15-16.
To his credit, Tierney did end the 15-16 on a relative high note production wise. In 24 playoff games, he chipped in nine points, an 82-game pace of 31 points. That said, at least a couple of those points were in garbage time.
Flash forward to this past season where many were hoping Tierney would elevate his game into a full-time third-line center role. While Tierney managed to set a new career high in goals with 11, his 23 points in 80 games was just two more than the 21 he had as a rookie. Not quite the production people expected. Most of his minutes came as a fourth-line center in 16-17.
Once again, to his credit, Tierney’s GF/60 rebounded from 1.48 to 2.09 and his plus/minus went up from minus-16 to an even zero. Those are noteworthy improvements.
Move to Wing?
It is easy to understand why there is a rather large contingent of Sharks fans who are big supporters of Tierney’s game. Behind Joe Thornton, he is arguably the best passer on the team. The splash he made as a rookie was genuine, it did not come riding the coattails of elite-level wingers. His two most frequent linemates that season were Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels, respectable grinders for sure, but two guys that never lived up to top-six potential.
Certainly Tierney hasn’t been blessed with great linemates the last two seasons, but where did the production go? If he was able to produce at a third-line level with Nieto and Wingels, surely he should be able to dominate in fourth-line minutes, right? Maybe it’s just a confidence issue?
If confidence is an issue, perhaps the Sharks would be wise to utilize Tierney in a different role this season. Perhaps as a second-line winger next to Logan Couture?
Tierney is a smart defensive player, so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the caliber of opposing forwards that Couture’s line faces on a regular basis. Furthermore, as a center who has struggled in the faceoff dot (46.6% for his career), he wouldn’t have to worry about taking draws. As a complementary player and an elite-level passer, Tierney’s skills should mesh well with Couture, who is more of a shoot-first center. Not to mention, if Kevin Labanc were to round out the line, Tierney would be playing opposite a right-handed winger who possesses a quality one timer.
The problem with Tierney at center is he isn’t a play driver. He doesn’t have the size nor speed to really carry a top-9 line as a pivot. He could, however, become a really good role-playing top-9 winger.
While my preferred power play units don’t currently include Tierney, perhaps the Sharks should consider using him on the second unit. Tierney has never seen regular power play time, but again, he’s arguably the best passer behind Thornton. In a power play situation with time and space, Tierney could be the perfect half-wall passer on the second unit. With an increased role in this fashion, some more points would go a long way in terms of confidence.
Tierney has certainly carved out a valuable role as a fourth line forward and top penalty killer, but there is still potential to get more out of him. He’s had his opportunities the last two years playing as the third-line center and he hasn’t been able to maintain that spot. What could it hurt to try him as a winger with a highly-skilled, shoot-first center like Couture?