Chris Tierney scored twice last night to bring his season total to six and his point total to 15. Neither pop off the page, but neither need to. Tierney’s role on the Sharks is that of a fourth line center; or at least, that’s what it should be. But thanks in part to head coach Pete DeBoer’s insistence and Tomas Hertl’s injury, Tierney has played as the third line center most of the season.
So when Tierney got his brace last night a fair share of “finallys” splashed onto the Twittersphere. Responding to criticism of a player is, generally, tacky. Responding to a specific criticism by a specific person is petty and responding to a generic criticism is too vague.
Instead let me frame my argument this way: Tierney is a perfectly fine fourth line center, which is what I’ve believed from day one. He’s still a below-average third line center; and that’s okay. The Sharks already have a great third line center in Hertl and they don’t need another one.
Before I get there, let me take a quick step back. Tierney’s 15 points put him at a 0.29 point per game pace, 0.04 higher than last season but 0.20 lower than his rookie campaign. That holds up even by looking at his primary points. Starting in his rookie season, his primary points per 60 minutes go from: 1.82 to 0.98 to 0.94. Tierney shot the highest rate of his career in that first season (12.50 percent compared to 7.29 and 10.21) but his assists got him that high point total.
So what’s the deal? Tierney played most of his time with Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto (115.66 minutes) and Hertl and Wingels (80.17) and ... hey wait a second did those guys have really good scoring years? Wingels scored 15 goals and was never heard from again; Hertl scored 13 goals in a sophomore slump campaign; and Nieto scored 10 goals, tallying double digit goals for the final time as a Shark.
That probably explains it. With the exception of Hertl, those are fourth line players and while he put up fine point totals, nothing there suggests he was ready to play against third line competition. And then the playoffs rolled around. Nick Spaling was centering the fourth line and ... boy, remember when that was a thing? Anyway, a lot of people got it in their heads that Tierney looked not just good, but great, as the third line center.
I remained ... skeptical, to say the least. Here’s why: His numbers were pretty freaking terrible. Adjusting for score and zone he posted a 44.12 corsi-for percentage in the postseason according to corsica.hockey (I usually use fenwick, but since we’re talking about a small sample size, I figure expanding it by using corsi is a good idea). But he scored!
That’s true! Tierney scored 1.49 primary points per 60 minutes in the postseason, at least coming close to what he accomplished in his rookie season. That counts for something, possession be damned, but it comes as a result of Tierney and his linemates shooting a gaudy 12.9 percent while on the ice. Gaudier still? Tierney’s even-strength shooting percentage of 28.57. The 97.14 even-strength save percentage posted while Tierney was on the ice during the postseason didn’t hurt his goal differential, either.
Tierney and company got absolutely eaten alive during the postseason, but they got very lucky and scored a bunch which filled some with the false hope he might be ready to step up to the third line role full time this season. Listen, that would be very good news from a depth perspective for the Sharks. Hertl plays well on the top line with Thornton and Pavelski and Ryan Carpenter has looked just fine on the fourth line ... but it’s not reality.
He’s been better this season for a couple of reasons. First, he’s not only playing against playoff teams; and second, I do feel he’s improved. But once the playoffs roll around the Sharks will find themselves overmatched once the third and fourth lines step on the ice with Tierney as the third line center. That’s not his fault — and turning to Carpenter isn’t the answer, either. Tierney is the better player (certainly based on what’s been shown thus far), but his best spot is on the fourth line.
A quick note on the Tierney-Carpenter debate, such as it exists right now. Carpenter has averaged 0.61 points per game in 181 career AHL games and is 26. He has four points in 11 career NHL games. Tierney only played 31 games in the AHL and scored 32 points and has 56 points in 174 games (0.32 points per game to Carpenter’s 0.36).
Carpenter currently has a corsi-for percentage of 55 to Tierney’s 49 (score, zone adjusted). That’s impressive, but it’s worth noting the difference between a third and fourth line player in the NHL is nothing to sneeze at and you need to factor in that Carpenter has had the chance to play with Timo Meier, one of the best possession players on the Sharks, the past week or so.
All that to say, give Tierney a damn break. He’s a good player and he didn’t need to score two goals last night to prove it. He’s probably not good enough to be the Sharks’ third line center, but that’s not his fault. The goal posts just need to be put in the proper place.