Not that he was a secret in the regular season, but if the first round of the playoffs have indicated anything, it’s that Tomas Hertl is well on his way to becoming the centerpiece of the San Jose Sharks.
For a decade now, the Sharks have been most closely identified with Joe Thornton, with Patrick Marleau another constant before he left for Toronto. Brent Burns gets a ton of attention on the back end thanks to his prodigious offensive output and his quirky combination of facial hair, tattoos and animal collecting. Joe Pavelski is the captain.
But let’s take a look at how Hertl has already put his stamp on the Sharks’ first-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights. First, there was the post-season guarantee after Game 5, where Hertl channeled his inner Mark Messier by declaring that San Jose would return to the SAP Center for a Game 7 because they were “the better team.”
True to his word, Hertl ended up playing the hero in Game 6, scoring a shorthanded goal in double-overtime on Sunday, the first ever in Stanley Cup history. You can’t get more clutch than that.
And all of this is coming at the best of times for San Jose, as the Sharks are still a consistent playoff team, albeit one with a lot of uncertainty heading into the summer. Thornton, so closely tied to the organization, turns 40 in July and ‘Jumbo’ has put a lot of hard miles on his frame over the years. He’s an unrestricted free agent this summer, playing off his second straight one-year contract with the franchise. And really, this is the sound way to go with the legend. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Thornton sign one more such deal and suit up for the Sharks next year, too.
But will he be joined by Pavelski? The ‘other’ Joe has been a staple with the team for years as well, but he too is a UFA this summer. Again, I can fully see Pavelski returning for a couple more seasons, but he’s turning 35 in July. And we haven’t even brought up Erik Karlsson yet, the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman who came over to the Sharks this season in a blockbuster trade with the Ottawa Senators. Unlike the two Joes, Karlsson doesn’t have a long history with the franchise and the chances of him hitting the open market are a lot greater.
Which brings us back to Hertl, just 25 and signed until 2022. It’s not really honest to say Hertl has been under the radar in his career, because he did score four goals in a game as a rookie and has been a steady contributor with the Sharks for years.
This season, however, Hertl busted out with 35 goals and 74 points in 77 games, annihilating his previous NHL highs and establishing himself as one of the most dangerous two-way players in the game. For a veteran Sharks team, this is quite important, because the old guard won’t be around forever and realistically, they may not be around for long.
That means Hertl, along with guys like Logan Couture and Evander Kane, will be needed even more in the coming years and Hertl himself is pretty intriguing. His ability to make big plays while also playing in all situations is great news for San Jose, especially since there may not be a lot of help coming in the future.
Because of the Karlsson and Kane trades, for example, the Sharks surrendered their first- and second-round pick in the 2019 draft, their first in 2020, not to mention the rights to NCAA prospect Josh Norris from the University of Michigan to Ottawa. As it stands now, the Sharks have just four picks in the 2019 draft. San Jose is also near the very bottom of Future Watch this season, with just two prospects in the top 100: defensemen Ryan Merkley and Mario Ferraro. Neither ranked in the top 75.
What has been remarkable about San Jose under GM Doug Wilson is how consistent a winner the franchise has been. True, they have yet to win the Stanley Cup, but they did get to the final against Pittsburgh in 2016 and a lot of teams would love to trade places with them. As we’ve seen with Chicago, Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent Pittsburgh this year, it’s very hard to be good for a long time, Eventually there’s a comedown. But with Hertl taking on a bigger role as the years go on, the Sharks have an opportunity to do just that.