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Chris Tierney: Year in Review

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From the team’s sixth leading scorer to the doghouse, fans’ perception of Tierney shifted this season

Ottawa Senators v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

Welcome back to the latest iteration of our Year in Review feature, where we re-visit the past season for key members of the Ottawa Senators. Here are the players we’ve profiled previously:

Drake Batherson

Erik Brännström

Connor Brown

Josh Brown

Thomas Chabot

Evgeni Dadonov

Alex Formenton

Victor Mete

Josh Norris

Nick Paul

Shane Pinto

Tim Stützle

Today, we review the season of veteran centre Chris Tierney. While he’s only 27 years old, Tierney is the second-oldest forward on the Senators roster. Surprisingly, Tierney is also tied with Brady Tkachuk as the third longest tenured Sens forward, behind only Nick Paul and Colin White despite only arriving in Ottawa three seasons ago in the Erik Karlsson trade.

By the Numbers:

Micah Blake McCurdy at HockeyViz

Chris Tierney is what he is at this point: a centre who can hold his own defensively, but is unable to drive offensive results. A second-round pick in 2012, it’s the kind of NHL career you’d expect from a player who scored a 1.33 points-per-game in his final OHL season with London, as the CHL is usually a league where only players scoring above 1.5 points-per-game in a season indicates that you have enough offence to potentially become a top-six forward.

It took Tierney a while to settle into his role in the NHL, though, because his junior point production translated right away to the pro game. In his first season with the Sharks organization, he put up 29 points in 29 games with Worcester in the AHL and then 21 in 43 with San Jose. Shane Pinto is highly regarded in these parts, and if he has that type of season this year, I bet most fans would take it!

While his full season point production has fluctuated between 20 and 48 over his NHL career, it wasn’t until the 2019-20 season that we saw Tierney’s shot impacts stabilize — rounding his game into being a reliable, “defensive” forward that we know him as today. This season, we’ve seen a precipitous drop in offensive impact that started to raise questions on whether Tierney is a long-term piece here in Ottawa. What happened is a complicated question, but here’s what I theorize:

  • in 2019-20, Tierney spent 33% of his minutes with Anthony Duclair, whose high octane offence drove results for everyone, and 19% with Brady Tkachuk. His time on the ice with the excellent (*sobs*) Chabot - DeMelo pair was also fruitful.
  • In 2020-21, Josh Norris emerged as a top-six centre, taking Tierney’s minutes away from Tkachuk and Chabot and putting him into an ‘offensive’ role with Tim Stützle, who isn’t as capable yet, or with offensively anemic forwards like Nick Paul and Ryan Dzingel. While Tierney’s defensive game has come along to not be impacted as much, his already-struck offensive ability continued to bleed.
Micah Blake McCurdy at HockeyViz

Story of the Season:

This was Tierney’s first season in Ottawa where he saw a drop in his minutes, going from second-line to third-line minutes regularly. His linemates reflected the versatility and uncertainty of his role, with Tierney getting time with bottom-six players like Nick Paul, Matthew Peca, Austin Watson, and Ryan Dzingel, in addition to time with top-six players like Brady Tkachuk, Connor Brown, Tim Stützle, and Drake Batherson.

Micah Blake McCurdy at HockeyViz

When Tierney is on his game, he’s utilizing a chip-and-chase style on zone entries to retrieve pucks at a high rate, and then setting up his teammates with a crisp pass. His best game of the season game against the COVID-19 stricken Canucks, where he had five shots on goal a puck protection menace as his line hemmed the Canucks deep in their zone on multiple occasions.

In Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, Tierney ranks as the team’s best puck retriever on the forecheck, but is often unable to do anything with the puck after that — ranking below-average in scoring chances and generating rebounds or tips. He’s often the one looking to set his teammates up, as opposed to be a recipient of high-danger passes, which is why I was curious to see him with two of the more dangerous playmakers on the team in Stützle and Batherson. The trio lacked chemistry, though, and Tierney’s off-puck movement in the offensive zone combined with standard low-to-high passes back to the point not jiving with the team’s young stars.

Tierney is a staple on the Senators penalty kill — receiving the most amount of ice-time among the team’s centres. He’s active at both denying entries to the opposition and generating entries for his team, though the team still ranks below average in preventing scoring chances when he’s on the ice.

Future Outlook:

Somehow, Tierney is the second-highest paid forward on the team. He’ll likely drop to fourth after the Batherson and Tkachuk contracts come in, but it’s no surprise to me to see his name floated in trade discussions given that the team appears ready to move on from him.

Can they, though? Currently, the team is especially weak down the middle outside of Josh Norris — who is only going into his second NHL season. Shane Pinto is a rookie out of collegiate hockey where he plays <40 games a season; Colin White has struggled to find his footing under D.J. Smith; and there isn’t a veteran in the fourth-line role currently. Hence, Tierney’s middle-six versatility and supposed aptitude for the penalty kill might look appealing for the Senators for at least one more year as they let the kids get more experience and continue on their quest to find another top-six centre.

All in all, it’s hard to imagine the team re-signing Tierney in the 2022 offseason as he looks set to go to open market as an unrestricted free agent.