The majority of the 2015-16 season has been a sophomore slump for second-year Sharks center Chris Tierney.
San Jose's second-round pick from the 2012 draft finished 2014-15 as the third line center, posting a tremendous 14 points in his final 18 games. This year however, Tierney has struggled playing mostly fourth-line minutes.
Overall he has just 20 points in 70 games with a minus-10 rating. Based off last season's finish, one might have hoped for a 35-40 point season this year in a larger role. While that hasn't happened, Tierney is quietly playing his best hockey at the right time. With the playoffs right around the corner, Tierney has turned his possession game around in a big way.
Still just 21-years old, Tierney's overall Fenwick-for percentage sits at 49.3%, but over his past 11 games he has an insanely good 60% Fenwick-for in close situations. While he has recently been bumped up to a line with Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward, most of this stretch has come on the fourth line. Regardless of his lineup spot though, Tierney has been frequently on the puck and making plays. Sure, he only has three assists to show for this turnaround in puck possession, but one could argue he deserved two goals as well. He had one disallowed for a kicking motion that many people feel should have counted. Another play was credited as Joel Ward's goal even though it looked like Tierney propelled it over the goal line.
Having puck possession success on different lines shows that Tierney is making positive things happen himself. He isn't merely riding the coattails of easy matchups or elite linemates.
When on the fourth line Tierney is certainly playing often against a lower level of competition, but it is still a great sign that his possession number has been much improved the last couple weeks. Since he has been mostly struggling over the season in that role, seeing him elevate his game is big for a team that hopes to be able to roll four effective lines come the postseason. And in the last couple games with Marleau and Ward (replacing the injured Matt Nieto), if anything, Tierney has looked like the best player on that line. He has been a puck magnet. The black rubber disc always seems to be on his stick in the offensive zone.
For a smaller guy, listed at 6'0", 195, Tierney has been protecting the puck well down low behind the offensive net, creating tons of zone time and scoring chances. When Tierney is off the ice over this stretch, the Sharks control only 55.7% of the unblocked shot attempts. Matchups/quality competition aside, the Sharks have been spending more time in the offensice zone with Tierney on the ice than with him on the bench.
For the more traditional stat guys out there, Tierney is a plus-3 since the Montreal game on Feb. 29, bringing that -13 down to a minus-10, only having one game where he was a minus over that stretch. He was a minus-1 against the New Jersey Devils, a game the Sharks got zero bounces to go there way. Other than that, Tierney is playing much better the last couple weeks than he has all season. A short sample size sure, but doing it while on multiple different lines is a good sign that he might be able to carry this hot play into the final 10 games and into the playoffs.
All 18 skaters in the lineup are crucial to playoff success and so it is important to have Tierney turning his game up a couple notches. My hunch says he will continue to play well down the stretch here and it's just another reason to believe in the Sharks. Pretty much all their regular fourth line players, Tierney, Dainius Zubrus, Melker Karlsson and Nick Spaling can all play higher in the lineup and not look out of place. That's the kind of depth this team has been missing in most years of the Joe Thornton era.