After a slow start to his third season, Tomas Hertl is now on a steady roll, and his newfound production has the Sharks flying high and headed for a playoff berth. Heading into Saturday’s nights home game against the Vancouver Canucks, the Sharks (35-22-6,) are in third place in the Pacific Division and their 76 points put them only four out of the division lead and 16 points up on the Canucks and the Arizona Coyotes for an automatic playoff qualifying spot.
The Sharks are 3-1-1 in their last five, with two victories on the road in Vancouver. In those five games, Hertl has two goals and two assists, with three points coming at the expense of the Canucks.
Hertl exploded on the scene in his rookie year, scoring four goals against the New York Rangers in just the second week of the season. His fourth and final goal of the night was a highlight reel goal for the ages, and immediately set the world on notice that Hertl was a goal-scoring star of the future.
Then, reality set in, as could be expected for a player who was still only 19 years old. Hertl showed a tendency to be a drama king when taking hits, dropping his gloves to the ice and … skating to the bench to writhe in discomfort. In a league that values stoicism and an unwillingness to disclose any information on injuries, opponents saw opportunities to lean on Hertl and get him off his game.
Then, a December collision with L.A. Kings center Dustin Brown put Hertl on the shelf with a knee injury that took away half the season and left Hertl out of the running for the Calder Trophy, the NHL’s rookie of the year honor. Still, with 15 goals and 10 assists in just 37 games, and a plus-11 on the plus/minus, Hertl was poised for a breakout sophomore season when once again healthy.
The Sharks’ 2014-15 turned out to be a forgettable one, as the team searched futilely all year to develop an identity, and eventually missed out on the NHL playoffs for the first time in over a decade. Hertl suffered through a miserable season too, tallying only 13 goals and 18 assists despite playing all 82 games, and found himself shuffled across all four lines and the Sharks tried to discover some offensive chemistry.
Hertl’s turned it around this season, and his play – particularly of late – has the Sharks not only playing their best hockey of season, but high on Hertl’s potential as a franchise cornerstone.
Through just 62 games, Hertl has career-highs in goals (16), assists (19) and points (35), to go with his plus-11 ranking. Averaging over 16 minutes of ice time per game, Hertl is fourth on the Sharks in Corsi rating, his 56.7 mark trailing only Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski – pretty good company, indeed.
Hertl has also grown into a more physical game. He’ll never be confused for a prototype power forward along the lines of the King’s Milan Lucic, but Hertl holds his own both with puck possession and applying pressure on the forecheck, and he’s willing to play with his back to the goal in the low slot, and it’s paid off with numerous goals via deflection.
The Sharks need to continue their momentum into the playoffs, and a tough first round matchup against either the Kings or the Anaheim Ducks likely awaits. But, Hertl’s growth as a complete player gives coach Peter DeBoer the luxury of four solid forward lines to play with tempo and pressure, and Hertl’s knack for creating points will be desperately needed when games tighten up in late spring.
Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
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