This whole thing took a little longer than everyone expected. But after five NHL seasons and good number of stops and starts, Tomas Hertl broke out last season and became the point-per-game impact player a lot of people in the hockey world thought he could be. For the first time since he came into the NHL, the word “inconsistent” was dropped from his scouting report.
And aside from Hertl himself, nobody could be more happier about this development than the San Jose Sharks, on a couple of levels. First, they signed him to a four-year deal prior to last season with an average salary of $5.6 million, which is going to look like a bargain if he continues to produce the way he did in 2018-19. But more importantly, Hertl’s emergence as a top offensive producer set the Sharks up to allow captain Joe Pavelski to leave as an unrestricted free agent, a move that helped them have the cap space to sign Erik Karlsson to a long-term deal. He goes into this season clearly installed as the No. 2 center behind Logan Couture, with Evander Kane and Melker Karlsson as his projected linemates.
“I was so happy for last year because I got big minutes in the playoffs and I was involved with everything,” Hertl said last week at the NHL’s pre-season media tour in Chicago. “Every important faceoff, every power play, PK. So I just want to do that and keep getting better and for sure lead the team because it’s time for me to step it up and be one of the leaders of our team.”
Those are dulcet tones to the Sharks’ ears. Because that is exactly what both sides are banking on happening this season. At 25, Hertl is entering his most productive years as a pro. Aside from the scoring totals, which ballooned to 35 goals and 74 points in 77 games, Hertl’s most dramatic uptick came in shooting percentage. He scored on 19.9 percent of his shots last season, third only behind Leon Draisaitl and Brayden Point among the league’s top 50 scorers. “I want to for sure just follow my last year,” Hertl said. “I was playing every night good. I would just follow that. I never like looking at how many points I will have. I just want to play the best game and win games. If I do it, the points come with that and the goals, assists always follow it if you just play your game.”
Just as importantly, the points continued to come for Hertl in the playoffs. He finished the post-season with 10 goals and 15 points, with much of his best work coming in the first round of the playoffs. With the Sharks facing a 3-1 deficit, Hertl scored twice in Game 4 to get the Sharks back into the series. Then he scored in double overtime, shorthanded, in Game 6 to tie the series. Then, of course, came the game of the ages that singlehandedly changed an NHL rule governing major penalties. With Cody Eakin sitting out a five-minute major that should have been a minor at worst, Hertl scored the second of four power-play goals that put the Sharks in the lead in a Game 7 they would later win in overtime. With the Sharks trailing 4-1 at the time of the penalty, Hertl went to work.
“On the first one, I think I won the faceoff and boom-boom, it was in,” Hertl said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, we’ve still got four minutes and there’s still 10 minutes left. I scored another one and I was like, ‘We can do this for sure.’ To score four goals will probably never happen again, but it was a crazy game. It was just so emotional. The fans were absolutely crazy. I never heard it this loud in our building, even when we went to the finals, it was still the loudest I ever heard.”
The Sharks go into this season as a pretty sure bet to make the playoffs in the Pacific Division. They took a 2-1 lead on another goal that changed the NHL rules in overtime of Game 3 before running out of gas against the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the Western Conference final. There have been a ton of changes, and Pavelski’s absence will be felt, but the Sharks return with a formidable team, strong and deep at forward and elite on defense. Consider that there are precious few minutes in the game when one of Brent Burns, Karlsson or Marc-Eduard Vlasic is not on the ice.
“'Burnsie,' he likes to shoot, so we have to find a spot,” Hertl said. “One of the best was Pavelski to get him the puck, so now we have to now take his spot and be there. Erik is one of the best passers. He knows that if you get behind the ‘D’ and you sneak in, he will give you the pass right away behind them. It’s nice to have them as forwards. They will find you and you can get a lot of offense from that.”
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