Last week I went down to Detroit to see what makes San Jose tick and the resulting article appears in the newest issue of The Hockey News (vol. 67, no. 09, hitting newsstands any day now). Now, there have been many excellent rookie performances early on this season, from Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones to Sean Monahan and Olli Maatta. But there is clearly one teenager who has seized the title of Early Calder Darling thanks to his baby-faced assassin ways: Tomas Hertl of the Sharks.
Will anyone in the league top his four-goal onslaught against the Rangers, the one cherry-topped by the Marek Malik shootout move, but done in real time with defenders trying to catch up? It’s doubtful.
“He's a big guy, but you see what he can do on breakaways,” said teammate Joe Pavelski. “He's got sneaky speed.”
In a very impressive year for rookies, Hertl is leader of the pack with eight goals and 11 points in 12 games. And for those who still care about plus-minus, he’s a plus-8. Largely playing with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns (currently out due to injury), the young Czech is naturally pretty stoked about having ‘Big Joe’ as a pivot.
“Oh, I'm very happy,” Hertl said. “He's the best player in the NHL at passing. Unbelievable.”
And the praise goes both ways. When asked about the rookie’s two-way play, Thornton jokingly noted that their line hadn’t really been challenged in that respect.
“We've only been playing in the offensive zone, so I don't know how his defense is,” Thornton said. “With him and Burnzie, they just forecheck so hard, I don't see them playing a lot of defense.”
At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Hertl is a load to handle and though he has attracted his fair share of attention from the opposition, it will only increase as his star glows brighter. Being surrounded by other offensive weapons helps. Pavelski, a potential American Olympian, for example, centers the team’s third line, but is among the team leaders in offense with 13 points in 12 games. He’s tied with No. 1 center Thornton and one behind No. 2 pivot Logan Couture. Should we expect Hertl to keep up his torrential pace as the season continues? Battling that sort of hype will be part of the challenge for not only the right winger, but his mentors too.
“We expected him to be able and come in and have an impact on this team, but not to the extent that he has,” said coach Todd McLellan. “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. Then we’ll have to work him through those down times as well.”
Perhaps the most challenging part of Hertl’s year so far has been getting acclimated to a new culture and language in North America. Unlike many of the top prospects from the Czech Republic or Slovakia lately, he hadn’t played a lick over here before joining the Sharks this season. He was playing against men back in the Czech Republic’s top league, but that only helped him develop on the ice.
One idea is for him to live with a billet family in San Jose this season, much like Russian teen Valeri Nichushkin is doing in Dallas. But at the end of the day, Hertl’s offensive power translates into any language and he’s already becoming one to watch if you believe the Sharks can finally break through to the Stanley Cup final.
“This team is very good,” Hertl said. “We've had a very good start to the season and I think we have a good chance this year.”