DETROIT – The San Jose Sharks’ bus was late, so Tomas Hertl had to wait.
That gave fans outside Joe Louis Arena another chance to ask for autographs from the 19-year-old whose stardom in the NHL has arrived earlier than most expected. Hertl has seven goals and three assists in his first eight games and is an early front-runner for the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year.
That production even caught coach Todd McLellan a little off-guard.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t (surprised),” he said after San Jose’s morning skate Monday in Detroit. “We expected him to be able to come in and make an impact on our team, but not to the extent that he has to this point.”
Hertl’s four-goal game Oct. 8 against the New York Rangers put him in the spotlight, spurring plenty of talk about showmanship because he shot between his legs and scored. Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates caused a stir by saying it’s important for young players like Hertl not to “disrespect the league,” while an off-colour locker-room comment by captain Joe Thornton spun the attention in a different direction for a little while.
The 2012 first-round pick has cooled off slightly since that breakout performance, but it’s not like the Sharks expect multi-goal games out of him that often. Given the ups and downs rookies tend to face, he might not finish the season with 20.
That’s OK, because as general manager Doug Wilson puts it, “Tomas is not a one dimensional player.”
“It’s not just the offensive numbers,” Wilson said in a phone interview. “This kid is very poised in his own zone, he makes really smart plays protecting the puck, and to us he’s a three-zone player that just fits in with how we want to play and where we’re going with our team.”
Where the Sharks are going is back on the rise, thanks in large part to the next generation of offensive players, including Hertl, potential Canadian Olympian Logan Couture and likely U.S. Olympian Joe Pavelski. And Wilson sees parallels between Hertl’s growth and what Couture and Pavelski went through as they blossomed into established NHL players.
“We just think he’s got a great combination of skill-sets: Obviously the size and the hands, but his vision and just how he can play all three zones,” Wilson said. “We’ve gone through this before and even though it’s a very different physical dynamic than Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, but he has the vision and the ability to do things, I think, that high-end players have.”
Having just moved to North America after two full seasons in the Czech Extraliga in his native Czech Republic, Hertl’s English is limited. On the night he scored four goals, he kept saying how much of a dream it felt like.
Monday he credited linemates Thornton and Brent Burns for his play and fellow Czech Martin Havlat for tutelage off the ice.
“Our team is very good,” he said.
Wilson does believe playing alongside Thornton and Burns has helped Hertl, but the rookie gets points for thinking the game at a high enough level to click with such skilled veterans. The Sharks saw that in him dating to his time at the world junior championships.
Of course the NHL is a long way from the junior level, and McLellan expects Hertl to hit a rough patch.
“As a 19-year-old and all the emotions of starting the year and scoring seven goals early, it’s going to catch up to him at some point,” he said. “Then we’ll have to work him through those down times as well.”
The Sharks are prepared for that. Wilson said the organization doesn’t go out of its way to promote young players—”we never have and we never will.”
So if the hype that surrounded Hertl after his four-goal game fades away or picks up, there’s a strategy for getting the most out of him.
“The most important thing is that they’re a trusted teammate and a trusted player by the coach, who can put them out on the ice in many different situations,” Wilson said. “The other stuff, obviously the attention is he scored four goals or he’s done this. The respect and equity he earns within our dressing room is how he plays the game shift-to-shift, day-to-day and he’s earned that.”
As for Hertl being a reliable three-zone player, Thornton figures he’ll find out eventually.
“With him and Burnsie, they just forecheck so hard, so I really haven’t seen him play too much defence all year,” Thornton said with a smile. “I think we’ve only been playing in the offensive zone, to be honest with you.”
That’s not a bad place to be for a player with Hertl’s abilities.