Sharks forward is responding to DeBoer's criticism: ‘I wanted to prove a point'

WASHINGTON — Chris Tierney is playing with something to prove this year and his early season performance is holding the Sharks fragile forward alignment together.

After getting called out by head coach Pete DeBoer last spring and lowballed by management in contract negotiations over the summer, Tierney entered training camp determined to show the Sharks braintrust and his teammates that he’s capable of being the team’s third line center. Through 25 games, he’s delivered, giving the Sharks some much-needed secondary scoring by recording seven goals, which is tied for second on the team.

“I came into the year wanting to prove a point. I believe in myself. I think I’m a good hockey player,” Tierney said. “I wanted to come in and show people that I could play an offensive role on the team.”

Tierney took big strides between his rookie year in 2014-15 and his sophomore season a year later, serving as the Sharks third line center in the last two-plus rounds of the playoffs as the team made its run to the Stanley Cup Final.

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But Tierney’s development hit a snag last year as he failed to make another jump forward, scoring just 23 points (11g, 12a) in 80 games, which left him stuck in the fourth line center role.

After the Sharks got eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs in April, DeBoer called Tierney out by name, insisting that the team needed to get more out of him if it was going to contend in the Western Conference in 2017-18.

General manager Doug Wilson didn’t exactly give Tierney a ringing endorsement either when he signed him to a one-year, $735,000 contract in restricted free agency, an underwhelming offer considering that he was matched up against Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin in the Stanley Cup Final just a year earlier.

In addition, the Sharks signed Ryan Carpenter to a two-year contract. With Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl slotted in as the team’s top three centers, simple math suggested that someone would be getting bumped out of the mix this year.

Tierney went into his offseason training program with former-NHL all star Gary Roberts determined to ensure that he wouldn’t be the odd man out.

“A lot of it was just coming into the gym every day and going there with a purpose,” Tierney said. “Give 100 percent and get 100 percent out of the workout, and really listening, and focusing on my nutrition.”

Playing in the Pacific Division against big heavy centers, such as Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler, Tierney knew he needed to get stronger on the puck, and to do so would require adding lower-body strength.

The 23-year-old center added 10 pounds of muscle while improving his speed by doing explosive exercises, such as lunges and squats, and quick feet drills, such as jumping over pylons and hurdles.

Tierney made a conscientious effort to follow Roberts’ strict-dietary plan throughout his training, eating organic meals, some vegan, while cutting out eggs, wheat and dairy.

“He preaches the same thing all the time, but I think I just dialed in more. I took it a bit more seriously this summer,” Tierney said.

The work is paying off.

Lacking scoring up front, DeBoer moved Hertl onto Couture’s left wing after just two games, giving Tierney another chance to lock down the third line center position. He’s capitalizing on the opportunity, producing seven goals, 10 points, a plus-three rating and a 52.30 percent possession rating in 25 games.

“He’s done a good job. He’s got more goals than (Joe) Pavelski on a team that’s lacking some scoring. That’s sorely needed and he’s one guy that’s delivered,” DeBoer said. “We’re recognizing it and trying to reward that.”

Third line center is a key position for the Sharks who made their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016 on the strength of their depth down the middle. With Thornton, Couture and Patrick Marleau as their top three centers, the Sharks produced a 26-14-4 record over the last 44 games of the season, creating mismatches on each of their top three lines.

It’s a formula the Sharks are looking to replicate this winter, making Tierney’s role extra pivotal. If Tierney sputters on the third line, DeBoer will be forced to pull Hertl off Couture’s wing, deflating the Sharks most potent line combination.

“For sure, we need depth in the middle and he’s part of that,” DeBoer said. “It’s no secret that goaltending, defensemen and centermen are what everyone is looking for.”

Although Tierney is delivering right now, he knows that he will ultimately be judged by his ability to sustain his performance over an 82-game season. If he can do that, he’ll put himself in a position to be rewarded when contract negotiations resume in the offseason.

“It’s a one-year contract, so obviously, it’s going to be up at the end of the year,” Tierney said. “I want to give myself every possibility to get the best contract that I can. I’ve got to just keep going and try to build on this right now.”

— Joe Thornton received a $5,000 fine from the NHL Department of Player Safety Sunday, the maximum allowable under the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players’ Association, for slashing Tampa Bay Lightning forward Tyler Johnson at the 19:51 of the second period Saturday.