Ottawa Senators: Should They Move or Keep Chris Tierney?

Chris Tierney has established himself as a solid middle-six option for the Ottawa Senators. After being brought in from the San Jose Sharks as part of the Erik Karlsson trade, Tierney has impressed many fans with his play in all situations. Now, Pierre Dorion must decide if Chris Tierney is to be a part of the new-age Ottawa Senators or another piece sacrificed in the team’s rebuild.

Unlike other key RFAs that the Senators will have to deal with this season, Tierney’s case to be re-signed doesn’t seem to be as much of a slam-dunk. While players like Anthony Duclair and Connor Brown provide specific skill-sets that are unique to the current crop of Ottawa Senators forwards, Tierney finds himself in constant competition with other centres in Ottawa that can play in similar roles.  This competition will only increase as prospects graduate to the NHL level in Ottawa, despite the Keswick, Ontario native being an established player.

In two seasons with the Senators, Chris Tierney has been a big favourite of Guy Boucher, and more importantly, D.J. Smith. He’s certainly lived up to the billing he earned with the San Jose Sharks and was an integral piece of their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016. The hope for Pierre Dorion when bringing the player in was that he could do something similar with the Ottawa Senators.

The 26-year-old set a career-high for points back in 2018-19, with 9 goals and 39 assists. While the loss of wing options like Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel caused a slight drop off to 11 goals and 26 assists this year (42 point pace), but by all advanced metrics, Tierney generated and surpassed offence at a far higher rate in 2019-20, and was a victim of his team’s own lack of quality.

Specifically, Tierney saw a single season rise in his HDCF% (high-danger corsi) from 44.55% to 49.01%. He was also able to control the battle of expected goals far better, increasing from 43.51% to 47.81%. Just prior to the NHL’s lockdown, Tierney held one of the best GAR (Goals Above Replacement) totals on the entire Senators team. This signals his true improvement at both ends of the ice for the year.

Some of these offensive metrics are very much still below par, but it’s at least encouraging to see that Tierney is improving under tough matchups.

One of the more appealing aspects of Chris Tierney’s game is his perceived value as both a power-play and penalty-kill threat. However, some of this value seems to be overstated.

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Tierney saw consistent minutes on the second power-play unit for the Senators this year, yet posted a very disappointing 3 points, in nearly 70 minutes of ice-time with the man-advantage. With him on the ice, the PP unit had a -0.67xG per 60 minutes, which is an abysmal mark. If the Senators graduate more centres to the NHL level next season, they’d be wise to pass along this ice-time to somebody else.

While shorthanded, Tierney proved to be an attacking threat. He led the entire NHL with 4 shorthanded goals and developed a solid partnership with Connor Brown. They were consistently relied on to shut down top units. He is the natural replacement for Jean-Gabriel Pageau‘s role as the team’s top penalty-killing centre.

Models and experts tend to be divisive on Chris Tierney’s true value. Last season was arguably his best at the NHL level, which makes this a tough negotiation for the Senators. While he is improving, how much more he can go at 26 years-old is really up in the air. The Senators have to pay based on what he actually brings to the table right now, and for what he can be when the team is better.

The Senators have existing internal competition at the centre position with Colin White and Artem Anisimov. Josh Norris, Logan Brown and most likely a high draft pick will also be competing for minutes as early as next year. Pierre Dorion must consider where Chris Tierney fits in this logjam going forward.

Data suggests that Tierney’s perceived value may be higher than what he actually brings on-ice. As mentioned, there are arguments on both sides, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense for the Senators. They likely won’t be contending for another 2-3 years, so to keep hold of a centreman who is already 26 years old, and whose impact will likely be diminished as his ice-time is taken away by younger forwards, may not be a wise play.

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If the Senators really do see a need to keep Tierney as part of the fold to bridge in younger talent, a short-term contract in the 1-2 year range would be fine, so long as the salary is moveable. The only type of contract the team should possibly look at with the player is around 2-years, paying him in the $2.5m to $3m range.

However, with Tierney’s value being propped up by top-six minutes he’d be hard-pressed to find with another club, this is probably also the best time to trade the player. Also taking into account his previous playoff experience with the San Jose Sharks, his value is likely at an all-time high.

Chris Tierney has a skill-set that is unquestionably useful to the Ottawa Senators in the short-term. But, when taking into account his age, and where Ottawa is as a whole, it just doesn’t seem like the fit is there. This is the type of player to move, not keep.

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